Many author’s begin their character creation with physical descriptions. While this is fine, I heavily suggest starting with personality. This sets the tone for the character before getting bogged down in physical details. The Enneagram, or other personality tests, can really help set a personality base. Not only does this give you a great starting point, but it will help you down the road when a character is faced with a difficult situation. I’ve read too many books where a character makes a choice based off of the author’s instinct rather than what the character themselves would actually do. Having a basic personality type allows you to look back and see the problem though that type’s point of view.
The enneagram is great because it gives you great insight into things such as; basic fear, reactions to stress, what healthy choices look like, and how the type processes the world around them. Choosing different personality types, or even sub-types, prevents all your characters from being slightly different variations of yourself. It also helps with consistency and voice.
Once you have a basic personality type, write down the characters background. Here are some categories I like to think though; family, culture, ethnicity, religious views, sexual orientation, and age group. Every one of these categories help shape the character’s identity. Please note that filling out each of these categories does not give you a complete character. Like real people, your characters should have quirks that set them apart from other people that might fit all their basic categories. This can include; hobbies, fears, life goals, aspirations, inspirations, painful memories, and other life events that shape who they are.
Once you have the identity of a character thought out, move on to the physical description. Allow who they are to shape your image of what this character might look like, sound like, even smell like. Don’t stop at simply listing a hair color, describe their fashion sense, birth marks, body type, and mannerisms. I find this easier to do once you have a more complete idea of their inner identity.
If you find the idea of having all of the characters in your book thought out to this degree before you start writing overwhelming, just do the ones that appear in chapter one first. Once you get a feel for how those characters interact, you can begin brainstorming what other characters would be a fun and meaningful type to include moving forward.
Make sure that your characters fit into the world and plot of your story in a way that you find compelling. I am an advocate for characters driving the plot, but your plot should be thought out enough to know how your characters will fit into your world. Have certain events in your world that are fixed, this gives your characters something to react to, rather than control. Having a mix of character controlled plot and plot that characters react to gives a story more of a real feel. Play around with what blend makes the most sense to you, but I would heavily encourage you to have a bit of both.
One final note. Your characters WILL challenge your preconceived ideas of what should happen in your book. I know it sounds weird, but really thought out characters have the tendency to make their own decisions as the story unfolds. Every time this has happened to me it has improved the story and moved it in a new more believable direction. This can only happen if your characters have a fully formed identity and you have a good grasp on how that identity will fit in the world you have created. In the end, you as the author need to find ways for your characters to feel alive in their environment. These are the steps that helped me, but don’t stop there. Add your own inspired insights and make your characters the star of the show!