I personally like the character sliders that Brandon Sanderson talks about in his YouTube classes on writing.
A friend of mine likes to choose a couple characters from TV and combine them in unique ways. This particularly helps if he gets stuck while writing later, since he can go watch an episode of TV, which almost always helps him get rid of writers block.
Others will do interviews with their characters. I find that this can work if the questions are both interesting and open ended enough.
Another option is a list of likes and dislikes. This can come in the form of favorite foods or colors etc. I don't find this as useful since it doesn't really show off the inner workings of the character. That doesn't mean it can't be relevant occasionally; a character might hate gravy because their parents argued about it as a child. But it's not always the best use of my time.
The last option I'll talk about today is designing a character like they're from a role playing game such as DnD. I mention that one because it's the most well known, but I personally love using the hindrances page from Savage Worlds. It's a list of things that were designed to affect a character in a way that will affect game play. As such it feels almost inevitable that these choices will affect the plot, thus creating more tension and interest.
How do you design or learn about your character?
My favorite part of any story is the characters. It is these people who truly bring the story to life for me. And I’m not just talking about the main characters. The best stories, to me, have fully formed minor characters, a whole world that feels real. This is also something I strive to do in my own stories. As a writer there is one thing I like do to make characters seem real.
Almost every character that appears in my stories has a fully thought out back story written down somewhere. This technique came from my time as actress. It was very important for even the minor characters, even the ones who didn’t speak, to know their motivation in any given scene. This meant creating detailed histories and discussing them with those around you.
One of my favorite theatre stories involves a girl who had no lines. We created an inside joke that two other characters had bet her not to talk for the whole weekend (that the play was set in). This made us giggle every time it would have made sense for her to talk. Though no one in the audience, and very few people in the play, knew why we were laughing, it added another layer to play.
I use this same technique in my writing. Knowing a characters personality and motivation effects everything, from their mannerisms to how they react to people. If you think about it in regards to real life, compare how two people react to a death. Someone who recently lost someone will react more strongly than someone who has not. It is human nature. Since these characters are human it makes sense to create lives for them.
Once your characters have a life, even if your readers never know it, the world they live in will feel more real. This makes your story more enjoyable for everyone.
I’ve tried a lot of different ways to learn about my characters before I start to write my novel, yet none have really clicked yet. I know these methods work for other writers so I thought I’d talk about the ones I have tried and see if anyone has a method to suggest.
The Questionnaire – Asking a long list of questions and answering them in character. Often I find these to be too superficial. If a character loves food I might talk about their favorite food once or twice, but for those that focus on other things food isn’t relevant to their character.
Of course there are also questions that are too broad. What’s important to your character? I don’t know yet, that’s why I’m filling out this questionnaire. Perhaps if I found a good mix of questions that worked together more this would work for me, but the ones that I have tried do not.
The Monologue – Having a character fill out a diary entry/letter/generally talk for a while. This will usually tell me what the character wants and what they find annoying. It can leave the character feeling one sided. To be fair I haven’t tried doing both a diary entry and letter for the same character, which might give me a more well rounded feel of their private v public life. I recently heard of pretending your character is going to a therapist, or have a character write a letter to the author, either discussing all of the horrible things that they've had to endure. I’ll be trying these next.
The Pinterest board – Putting together a collection of pictures of what the character, their home, and their general living arrangements are like. I find that this encourages me to spend too much time describing what the characters look like instead of their actions and emotions. Although adding some pictures to my general character notes helps me remember some of their physical descriptions.
Writers Coloring Book by Rachel Funk Heller - This is a particularly unique way to learn about your characters and plot around them. The book uses color to show the different levels of a characters psyche. One of the nice parts is just choosing colors that go well together and then figuring out how they fell together that way later on. This seems to work visual writers.
How do you learn about your characters?
As a writer, I spin tales to take the reader away from everyday life, if only for a few hours. However, becoming a published author and reaching readers is a struggle. Writers sit in front of laptops and tap away in hopes of creating the next great American novel. But what happens after the manuscript is written and edited?
It was a dilemma for a few of my fellow writers and me. One Sunday night at Denny’s we pondered the question. Sending query letters to publishers is nerve wrecking. It takes the stars to be aligned just right to connect and get a contract.
We knew there had to be another solution. Yes, self-publishing on Amazon is an option, but the writers at the Sunday Night Write In knew there had to be other alternatives. So in January, the idea of starting a publishing company for authors in the 518 was spawned.
The 518 Publishing Company, LLC has been created to help writers in the 518 to publication. We will make it happen.