Writing interesting characters – making them three dimensional- is the very heartbeat of a good story. Even if one’s plot is ho hum, if your reader connects with your characters you’ll keep them turning pages (and lining up to buy your next book and the next).
My first step in building an interesting character is their name. It shouldn’t be something unpronounceable with lots of letters and no vowels, or something so unusual that every time it’s on the page it slows down the reader as their brain stumbles over the unfamiliar. We don’t want readers spending the entire book trying to figure out how to pronounce a name.
I always give my main character’s a first, middle and last name. (What does their mother yell when she’s mad at them? lol) Even if you never use that middle name, you should know it. As soon as I name a character, I want to know what other people in the book are going to call them. Is it a nickname? A pet name? Is one character the only person that calls her by this particular name when everyone calls her something else? Do they like the name, hate the name, call themselves by another name?
Next find an image. I tend not to use celebrities because they already have characteristics I know. I look for a fresh face, a blank canvas, so my characters are mine, all mine.
Next I give them a birthday. I don’t allow myself to think about it, or read astrological signs – Do this fast. I just tell myself this characters birthday is March 21st 1992. Done. I do this for each major character, and that includes villains (it doesn’t have to be a mustache twirling bad guy – it could be the hero’s mother-in-law.) All the main characters have a birthday. Day, month and year. The most important thing with birthdays is you can not change it once you chose it! No matter what.
Once you have a birthday, research that astrological sign and you’ll see who your person is. Pick three to five character traits, and use at least once in every scene that character is in. No matter who’s POV you’re in. If the person is on the page, make sure they have characteristics individual to them. If this is who you want, you’re golden. You have all their characteristics under their sun sign, and you’re ready to write. What is the astrological sign isn’t who you want your character to be? Snoopy dance! But I love it when I inadvertently end up with a person I didn’t want, and have no desire to write. This is striking gold! (remember, no changing birthdays). If you have a meek and mild astrological sign, when the character you want is a kick butt, fire sign, then you need to go into their backstory and see what changed them from meek, to fire. Give them life experiences, learning curves, lessons in their past, things that have changed them (for better or worse). Make them who you want them to be, but be sure to motivate those changes.
Once I have their name, date of birth, and characteristics, I write their backstory. I want to know about their family (even if that family never appears on the page) How they were raised, how they grew up, who their patents are/were, how their parents treated them, their birth order, their level of education- all these things go into who they are the moment they first appear on the page. Be sure to add milestones in their life, the good and the bad. Know what they love. What they hate. What is their Kryptonite? What do they consider their strengths? What do they consider their weaknesses? What makes them happy. How do they feel about money (or lack thereof). Another thing I always know about a character before I start writing is how they behave if they’re scared. What is their tendency? To run away? To ask for help? To tackle even the scariest situation by themselves?
Knowing all of the above about your characters before you write Chapter One gives you a solid base to build your 3-D characters on so that once you start writing, you don’t have to come up with his brother’s name on the fly, or decided half way through the book it would be cool if he’s an orphan.
If he’s a three dimensional person in your head, he’ll saunter onto the page, thumbs in his back pockets, scar on his hard head from falling off the jungle gym when he was seven, barely healed heart after Roxanne jilted him at the alter when he was twenty-six, squinting because he refuses to wear his glasses. He’ll look out of that page with so much personality readers will hold their breath as they turn the page to see what he’ll do next.