As a fiction writer, no matter what story you are telling you are writing biography: an intimate and detailed exposition of your characters' lives and personalities. Your challenge is to portray each of the main characters in your story as a unique “real” person, rounded with distinctive details.
You’ve likely heard the advice, “Show, don’t tell.” In terms of characterization this means that merely describing a character’s disposition (f.g., “James was a lonely widower, unsure of himself when meeting new people, especially women”) is not a compelling way for your readers to discover that character. Rather, let your characters reveal themselves through their thoughts, words and actions. In this organic way, readers will feel that they get to know your fictional characters in the same way they learn the personalities of real people in their lives.
To enable your characters to divulge themselves you have to keep them active. Present all the important events on stage where your readers can experience them firsthand, and not just hear about absent scenes through the characters’ memories. (Well-written dialogue qualifies as dynamic action, but internal monologue quickly gets boring.). Fuel each of your main characters with concrete problems they must struggle to solve (or concrete goals they fight to obtain), rather than vague, abstract goals such as “searching for happiness.” Set each person (protagonist and antagonist) on a definite path of pursuit of what he or she desires. Their actions will show who they are, while driving the story forward and leading to its increasing complications, conflicts and tensions.
One of the most effective ways to reveal a character is to describe the setting through his or her senses and emotions, rather than neutrally, through objective narration. This technique shows the external and internal environments at the same time, giving the whole situation of the scene.
Below is a list I created for myself to help muse about my characters before writing the first page of a new story. I print out a copy for developing each main character, allowing room to jot down notes. I hope the list will help you to arrive at that euphoric moment when your characters come alive for you on the page. At that point, your fingers will race over the keys because the people inhabiting your imagination will begin to dictate their own story.
· NAME. Does the character’s first and last name (or nickname) reflect his or her personality?
· MOTIVES. What does this character badly want? How do events (each scene, as well as the whole story) directly relate to this character’s specific hopes and fears? What person(s) or forces does this character oppose?
· SUSPENSE FACTOR. Is there a clear-cut, highly-charged, dramatic question (“Will she, or won’t she?”) that applies to this character’s goal(s)?
· SURPRISES/OBSTACLES. What complication would pose the biggest threat or challenge to this particular character?
· REPUTATION. Is this person known to have a short fuse? Known as a man of his word? Known as a pushover? A winner, a loser, etc.?
· HABITS. Positive and negative habits. Any quirks or eccentricities?
· ATTITUDES/LIFE VIEW. What disposition plays a role in this character’s past or present life? Is religion influential? Philosophy? Personal slogans? Family sayings?
· FLAWS. Greed, pride, jealousy, anger, shame, etc.
· TALENTS/KNOWLEDGE/SKILLS. Education, degrees, titles. Natural gifts. Special training, expertise. Military experience? Hobbies, sports. Which skill set plays a direct role in the story?
· PAST/BACKSTORY. Place of birth. Childhood. Crucial life-shaping experience? Most painful event in life? Most wonderful event? Proud of what? Ashamed of what?
· RELATIONSHIPS. Parents. Family members. Friends (best friend/sidekick?). Memberships. Pets—importance of pets. Is there a kinship or a prior relationship with the love interest or adversary?
· PROMISES. Oaths, commitments to uphold or break?
· SPEECH/DICTION. What is the sound quality of this character’s voice (reedy, sonorous, smoky, etc.)? Does she speak with street slang? An Oxford accent? Fast or slow talker? Chatterbox, terse? Oft-used expressions?
· TASTES in food, clothing, music, literature, arts, etc. High-brow? Low-brow? Mixed tastes? Natural? Pretentious?
· PHYSICAL APPEARANCE. Height, weight, eye color, hair color, race, body type, distinguishing features. Posture. How the character walks, sits, talks, eats, laughs. Tics? Mannerisms and typical gestures. How does character feel about her appearance?
· STATUS OBJECTS: Everyday objects that reveal a range of things about a character’s level of income and education, materiality, attitude, and philosophy. (Does he wear a plastic sports watch, or a Rolex Oyster? Does she drive a Jaguar or a Jeep?)
· HOME/NEIGHBORHOOD. Trailer, cabin, apartment, manor, etc. What is overall impression of the home? (Cluttered? Clean? Well-planned?) Is this home, sweet home, or would the character prefer to live elsewhere?
· PREFERENCES. Enjoys shopping? For what? Favorite music, movies, books. Comfort food/favorite food? Eats burgers or alfalfa sprouts?
· JOB/PROFESSION. Money history and attitudes (prudent, cautious, generous?). Debts?
· EMOTIONAL TRAITS. How does the character react to an emergency? How does the character handle praise, criticism? Any emotional wounds?
· HOW DOES THE CHARACTER CHANGE? What lessons have been learned by the story’s end?