New? Begin with lesson one.
Start with their basic personality and build from there.
Before you get to their individual likes, dislikes, physical characteristics, strengths, and flaws, figure out your character's basic personality. The easiest way to do this is to think of a person your character reminds you of in real life. You can play around with the other details, changing them as needed, but when it comes to a question of what your character would do, you can imagine that person in a similar situation.
Just be careful of the temptation to make them a caricature, either to the perfect or absolutely despicable side of the spectrum. No one is either all good or all bad. Even the worst of the worst will have some decency somewhere, whether it's being good to their mother or just a love of fluffy bunnies. At the same time, no one's perfect either. Unless you're writing a parody, it's usually a good idea to avoid the Mary/Gary Stu trope, which can also apply to antagonists.
Several writers talked about character building in science fiction during #scifichat on Friday, February 20. "After a writer internalizes the structure of a character for their genre, they just get born out of the subconscious," said J. Lichtenberg during the chat. Once you have the basic idea of who your character is, your subconscious will work through their reactions and finish fleshing them out as you outline and begin drafting the story.
Once you know their core personality, it's time to start looking at other factors that can affect their reactions.
Even though it's not generally recommended to go into any great detail regarding a character's appearance, it can be helpful to have a clear picture in your mind since some details might influence how you write them. How old are they? Are they short, tall, or of average height? What's their hair length and texture? Do they have any old wounds or scars? Are they left handed or right handed? You may or may not use this information directly, but walking through the cramped confines of a submarine is very different from the viewpoint of someone tall and broadly built than it would be for someone short and slender.
Think about their background. What social class do they belong to, and how did this affect their knowledge and skill levels? Did they have any hobbies growing up? What was their relationship with their parents, friends, and their extended circle of acquaintances? The answer to these questions combined with their personality will determine what your character can or can't do and how they'll react in certain situations.
Let's take Right of Succession's Chantal as an example. She was sequestered inside Tembar with little to no outside contact until running away at sixteen. Her education was hyper focused on math and sciences. So while she's sketchy on the history of her country and how certain things in society as a whole work, she was able to notice discrepancies in her father's bookkeeping and figure out the basics of what was going wrong in Tembar within a matter of weeks. She'd grown up relatively close with her father. She'd looked up to him and respected him as a man trying his best with a poor region, so the sting of discovering he'd lied to her throughout her entire life makes her alternate between bitterness and guilt.
In contrast, Icarus' Pyrha Daedalus is a grown woman of twenty-five with a typical upbringing for her society. She understands how life within the Atlantic Coalition runs. It's the contrast between the cramped but blessed life of those in the coalition and the desperate poverty and disease of the survivors on the surface that shocks her into action. Alone she's just a stubborn, mouthy, post-grad student working a job outside her degree in biochemistry to make ends meet during her internship. If it weren't for the support of her friends, her desire to help the survivors would have only amounted to a handful of disagreements with her father and coworkers.
Finish rounding your character out with strengths, weaknesses, likes, and dislikes.
Now that you have all the basics down for your character, you can figure out a few pertinent details. Sometimes thinking like you're interviewing them for a job can be helpful. What is their greatest strength? Where are areas where they are weak? How would they describe their best day ever? What do they feel is just the worst?
You might not even determine these things until you begin outlining the story, or they might change as you do. Sometimes the balance of strength and weakness is obvious, and other times it can seem paradoxical. A character might be very intelligent and creative, but they might speak in a constant, rambling stream of consciousness that convinces everyone around them they're nuts. They might excel in their field but suffer from extreme self-doubt. They could be kind and funny but also vain and self-serving.
Let's look at Chantal and Pyrha again for examples.
Chantal is mathematically gifted, detail oriented, soft hearted, and determined. However, she's also skittish, wary of anything new or unexpected, carries a low opinion of herself, and she's a bit bigoted. Her core personality, upbringing, childhood isolation and experiences, and the discovery of her father's betrayal all played their part in creating both the good and bad elements of her character. Having these faults not only makes her human, but they give her room to grow.
Her character started out as just a background figure and crept along, growing so slowly I didn't notice until she ripped the keyboard away from me and stole the book around about rewrite thirty-five. Almost the whole process of her creation was subconscious, so I'm not even entirely sure of my own thought process in the matter.
Pyrha's a different matter altogether. Back in 2004, when the original short story was written and published, Pyrha was a bratty nineteen-year-old know-it-all who was obsessed with the idea of the surface. As I grew up and later decided to reclaim the horrible piece and make it something worthwhile, I had her do the same.
I more or less took the bratty teenager she was and put her through college, working a few part-time jobs, and repeating an extensive training course three times. She's still stubborn, a bit rebellious, and has a mouth that runs off with her when she's angry, but she's also thoughtful, competent, and level headed in a crisis.
That much I knew going in. However, as I began outlining the trilogy, the first book in particular, other facets of her character materialized as if out of thin air. She's an organizing wiz but stinks at cooking. She might be eloquent and passionate when she's riled, but Pyrha also has a crippling fear of speaking in public. Part of these things are a natural extension of her personality. Others are blatant balancing of other characters' traits, but they're still plausible for her character as well.
Keep it simple, and don't get overwhelmed.
Remember, you don't need to do this for all of your characters. Just work out your main characters. Get them firmly fixed in your mind, take some notes to keep everything straight, and then start outlining. As you structure your story and go forward into a detailed outline, your other characters will present themselves while your mains continue to flesh out.
Take notes as needed. Depending on if you're just writing a short story or a series of novels and how complicated they become, you may or may not need to take notes. I'm a stickler for continuity and loathe retconning, so I like to keep a world book for my universes. That's not something everyone will need, but it works well for me.
In short, just try to make your characters feel like real people. If you can do that, you can get your audience to care about what happens to them. When characters feel more like cardboard cutouts than someone you might bump into somewhere, it can be difficult if not impossible to keep your reader's attention.
Thank you for reading. Please feel free to ask questions or add to what I've said here in the comments below.
Continue on to story structure.
Yekara Series Book 2
The Icarus Project
Rough Draft Progress
69061 / 75000
Myth & Science Collection
Icarus Trilogy Book 2
Yekara Series Book 3
Myth & Science Collection 2
Intent Only at this Time
Icarus Trilogy Book 3
Supers Collection 2
Intent Only at this Time
Yekara Series Book 4