For me, a story starts with the characters. When I’m writing, reading, watching. If I’m not connected with the character, then I will never get invested in the story. But this begs the question on what makes a good character, and that tends to have a whole lot that goes into it.
First, what kind of character are we talking about here? Are we talking about the main character, be it the protagonist or the antagonist? A party member (meaning someone who works with the main character frequently so they aren’t minor but they aren’t the main character either)? The love interest? Or just Background Pleb Number 32? What goes into each of these characters is different, and it also depends somewhat on taste and genre.
When creating a main character, I like to make a full bio, so I don’t forget any details. Name, nicknames, family make-up, hair color and preferred style and length, eye color and make-up preferences, clothes style. I think about how all these things impact the character. Are they an only child, or are they lost among siblings and how do they cope? Is their hair style functional or is it a time-consuming process? What do their clothes say about them? Popular, trying to be popular, fashionable, or that person in the back of the class who doesn’t care? I make notes of all of that, so I can keep them in mind as I then set out to the hard part. What is their personality like? Are they snarky, or are they sweet? Are they both? What is their temper like? What are their biggest flaws?
Caley is my prime example in all of this. Little facets really reveal a lot about her. Her wardrobe is the epitome of mix-and-match durability, and it all fits into one bag. Her hair is worn long, with little styling, and she doesn’t even own make-up. I have a full map of her family break down, including who lives where, who is married or dating, and who has how many kids. From all this, it can be inferred one of the big parts of Caley’s past history. She’s bounced around between family members her whole life, and has to be ready to leave in a moment’s notice. She hasn’t set down roots anywhere, and doesn’t see any point in trying to impress anyone other than herself. Which as you can imagine, mean her manners are not the best when dealing with other people.
See what I mean? It’s the little details that do a lot to help you figure out the character, or at least for me. You could also do the reverse and start with a particular personality in mind and figure out the physical from there. I’ve done this with party members.
Speaking of party members… Once you have your main character figured out, you now have to figure out what skills they are lacking, and thus get another character who does have those skills added to their friends. Why? Because while a guaranteed way to cause conflict in a book is to give a character a challenge they have no hope of defeating, they need to at least figure out a way around it, and usually this means getting help. For me, party members start with figuring out what that skill is, and expanding upon them based off of what that skill tells me about the character, adding other elements as I go along. While your party members don’t need to be as complex as your main character–and in fact shouldn’t, or else they will start to compete for attention–they do need to have their positives and negatives.
Caley’s got two primary party members, and both serve similar but different functions. Rather than expound on Moonshine (I’ll save him for a magical creature building post next month along with a few others), I’m going to focus on the other human who serves as a sort of foil for Caley: Violet. I haven’t mentioned her much, but Violet was the school outcast before Caley, and on top of being much better at getting along with people, Violet has a better understanding of the mystic side of things. Why? Because Violet is a Wiccan witch, her powers primarily in stone craft. This means that unlike Caley, she can directly impact her surroundings and foes with her powers, and knows some of their weaknesses (see, skills). Personality wise, she is sweeter and far more excitable, and is the definition of Bohemian geek. (Seriously, her dog is named after a cartoon character.) She serves as a foil for Caley, showing where Caley is lacking so she doesn’t come across as boring but also helping serve as a marker of growth, making it easier to see how the girls both change over the course of the series.
Now comes a trickier beast. The love interest. How you go about building the love interest is going to depend a lot on what kind of book you are writing. If you are writing something that is heavy on the romance, the love interest needs treated just as powerfully as the protagonist and the antagonist, because they have to be able to stand toe-to-toe with the other person. If you are doing a love triangle or your romance is very much a subplot for various reasons, you need to create your love interest like you would a party member. (Especially because usually this means your love interest is a party member to begin with.) Just keep in mind some of your favorite relationships in things you’ve seen in books or movies. What worked, what didn’t work, what kind of personality meshes well with your main character.
….Caley’s and Violet’s love interests are unnecessarily complicated by their own shenanigans, and because Ginny says no spoiling, I can’t spotlight either of them. I will say that when I was sorting out personalities and such, I relied a lot on (believe it or not) horoscope books. There are books detailing which signs work best together, and in my case I splurged and bought two books that expound upon the signs in relation to male and female, and even on hetero and homosexual couples. It can give you a nice building block to work off of.
Minor characters should be tropes. Cardboard cutouts. If you add more than a trait or two and some physical tags, they start approaching party members, not background characters. The only time I make exceptions to this is if they are going to be important in later books that you have already planned out. Then you can flesh them out a little bit more, add a couple of more traits and focus to them to get your audience wondering what it is about them that’s important. The important thing is don’t name someone unless they are important. Names are the sign of needing to remember them to the reader. If you add too much detail, it starts distracting from the protagonist and their conflict, as well as distracting the reader.
I might flesh this out more later, but there’s a bit of my character building process.