Think back to your favorite book or film. Why was it your favorite? What made it so awesome? Chances are the first answer that popped into your mind was the characters. A memorable protagonist, complex antagonist, and enticing secondary cast carry the narrative and make your audience want to continue reading your book. It's important to create characters that people not only WANT to read about, but ones that they can CONNECT to on a deeper level. Emotional attachment is what hooks readers and sells books. Everything else is icing on top of the proverbial cake.
Taking the time to properly develop your characters makes all the difference. Good characters drive your narrative and make your story interesting. Who they are creates their drive for a particular objective. Their past and experiences make them react to their circumstances in a certain way. Their values and beliefs move them to make choices. Experiencing challenges to those beliefs changes who they are and leads them to make decisions that result in consequences. All of these traits that make them who they are are ultimately what create the fundamentals of your book.
That's the reason I start with creating my characters first. If I know who my characters are, I can find out what they want and from there I can discover just how far they will go to get it. The answer to those questions are what I then use to create my plotline and settings. By creating strong, well-developed characters I not only have what I need to build a captivating story, but it also helps me understand what my story is truly about.
When I create my characters from scratch, I use a template to help get me started. Here is an example of what I use below:
Character Development Template
Full Name (include any nicknames/aliases)
Hair (color and details)
Distinguishing physical features (ex: piercings or birthmarks)
How do they walk? Is it confident? Timid?
Special skills (like magic or physical prowess)
Describe their personality.
How do they dress?
What items or tools do they carry with them?
What do they put faith in? (can be a religion/deity, another person, etc.)
What embarrasses them or makes them uncomfortable?
How do they handle praise or criticism?
What do they want more than anything else?
Describe how they handle anger, happiness, grief, fear, etc.
What can't they live without?
Where do they live and why?
Who do they live with (if anyone)?
What is their lifestyle like?
Describe their most cherished items.
What is their daily routine?
Who is in their family? Describe them briefly.
What is their birth order? (example: oldest or youngest sibling) What effect does this have?
Are they married? In a relationship? Single?
Do they have any children?
Who do they trust most? Least?
How would a dear friend or relative describe your character?
How would a stranger describe your character?
How do they treat their friends?
How do they treat strangers?
If you take a few minutes to fill out these questions, it should give you a better understanding of who your character is. The more detail you put into these initial concepts, the more well-rounded your character will become. Generally I use these templates for each of my characters (if they appear multiple times within the story) because it gives me clear indications of how they will behave once they are put into whatever circumstances unfold. If it's a minor character who only appears once, for example a messenger, then it's not necessary.
Once you've mapped everything out, keep them! This template will help you stay organized and consistent with your character details once you actually start writing. I can't tell you how many times I've had to describe my characters and referred back to my planning sheets. It saves time and the hassle of flipping back through your manuscript trying to make sure everything matches.
Another organizational tool that you'll want to utilize while you write/plan is a Character Tracking List. It's important to start this one early, as it is a reference tool that will also save you time as you write. The purpose of this one is pretty simple, it's used to keep track of all the characters you have and their relationships to each other.
Here is a sample:
Character Tracking List
1. Character Name
-spouse of x
-child of y
-enemy of xyz
Seen on pages: 1, 15, 35.
This one comes in handy especially if you're planning for a lengthier story or if your story has a lot of different characters. For example: Game of Thrones by R.R. Martin. There are so many characters (a lot of them only seen once or twice). In order to keep track of them all, they need to be written down and accounted for. Otherwise they'd get lost in the shuffle and it would be confusing to try to remember who was on which side of the war and who was a friend or a foe of each character. Make sure to update this list as you write, as you're sure to invent new characters along the way as your story evolves.
The last thing I do to help further develop my characters is to create a background story. This can be as long or as short as you want it to be, but the purpose of it is to write about your character using the details you came up with in your development sheet as a starting point. I usually start at the characters birth and write it from there. New details will emerge about them and their life, but more importantly you'll get a better sense of who they are and how they think. Write until you feel like you know everything there is to know about your character and why they do the things that they do. You don't need to focus on formatting here. Just grab a piece of paper and free write until you can't anymore. Don't be alarmed if you don't get the full story, or if it feels like key pieces of information are missing. Sometimes you won't know something until it comes up later like while you're writing your story or something else happens (like the creation of another character) that fits in that particular blank space.
While you work through the planning process, it's also a good idea to save your sheets all in one place, whether that's online in a place like Dropbox (where it can never be deleted or lost) or in a physical binder. I've learned this one the hard way. I used to save all my work on a USB drive and have regretted it when they stopped working. Now I keep updated online and physical copies just in case.
At this stage in the development process, keep in mind that it's all about having fun. Create as much or as little as you feel you need to! There is no right amount or right/wrong way to do it. It's all about getting to know your characters better and what they have to offer your story.