One thing I’ve come to accept with writing is the absolute need for character research. And by this, I don’t mean heading over to Google to find out about the town in which you plan to set your story, or looking up how likely it might be to die from a well-aimed gun shot. The single most vital bit of research any writer does relates to the people who populate their pages. Not knowing enough about the characters in your story is the biggest cause of writer’s block.
The obvious objection here is to say: How can I research a character I made up?
Soap writers access huge detailed fact files built up on each and every on-screen face so nobody acts out of character. As a writer, you need to do the same.
Each time I get an idea for a new project, I write the first few chapters (secure in the knowledge not one sentence will make the final draft). This is where I stop.
By then, I’ve created a handful of characters – or in my case, it’s more like twenty or thirty. This is where the initial character cull needs to happen. At least half need to go (or find themselves relegated to bit part roles – often without names).
What you’re aiming for is one or two lead characters and perhaps two (or three at most) supporting ones.
Character 16-point checklist
When you’ve agreed with yourself who gets to live, this is where research starts. My target is to write 2-4 pages on each. This is where you dig into your imagination, but also Google to understand who the character is, what drives them and what has happened to them in their life, where they come from and what sights, sounds and smells they recall and carry with them.
For each character, think about:
- Their age
- Where they live when the story starts
- Physical description
- Typical clothing (here I like to create 5-10 outfits to copy and paste later)
- Current and former occupation
- Key relationships
- What motivates them?
- Describe their personality
- Do they follow any hobbies?
- Do they have habits or twitches/tics?
- Why is their role in the story?
- Does anything scare them?
- What drives them on?
- Describe their biggest secret
- What do other people see when they look at this character?
I’m not going to say you must complete every single one of these for each character. Lesser ones don’t merit this level of depth, but having a place to check back and make sure you gave them the correct eye colour or the right hairstyle will save you hours of flicking through chapters. And avoids that horrible day when an editor (or worse a reader posting an Amazon review) points out your glaring error.
As a bonus, nine times out of ten, doing this exercise prompts storyline twists; knowing I’ve created something to reveal about any character is a brilliant motivator.
How do you build your characters? Share your tips.