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?
As a writer, I am continuously looking for inspiration for characters. One thing I do, which I may say I thoroughly enjoy is to people watch. Yeah, I know a lot of people do it, but an author does it with a critical eye.
It’s amazing the people out there. I was recently traveling for work and about halfway to my destination I stopped at McDonalds. As I sipped my coffee, I heard the clinking of coins. At first I ignored it. I was so focused on getting caffeine into my body. But the noise continued and I looked up. I turned my head and sitting in the next booth was a man.
He was probably in his 40s. It was hard to tell since life had steamrolled over him. His edges were tattered and the bulging knapsack on the table told me he was probably homeless. I studied him for awhile and our eyes met. To my surprise the man had the most beautiful blue eyes. Not just a plain old blue but clear crisp cerulean. If it wasn’t for his appearance, I would have thought they might have been contacts.
After a few moments the man looked away and he continued to dig into his change purse for money. This guy is what makes a character. It was as if his eyes held a secret and it had to be told.
As I left, I smiled at the man, placed a $20 bill on the table in front of him and told him I was paying it forward. He looked up in surprise and whispered thank you.
I still think about the McDonald’s man. What’s his story? How did he come to this point in his life? So many questions and only he had the answers. I can see him in my Sundowners story. A man with few words and a secret. A secret when revealed spins the plot 180 degrees.
So the next time you are enjoying a cup of coffee, take a look around. You never know, I may be in the next booth plotting you into a story and deciding if I should kill you off.