One thing people say I am very good at is making well thought out believable characters. I can’t say if that’s true or not, but I have certainly been accused of it. So, here goes for breathing life into your characters.
Probably the first step I have of character creation is concept. This is sometimes, at least for your “major players” of the story, tied directly to your story concept. So, let’s look at Hints of a Whisper, my work in progress. The basic concept I have is along the lines of “What if a detective lands a case that is wrapped in a foreign power’s covert operations?” (I did edit that a bit so I don’t give away too much here… have to wait for the novel to come out.) Already, we know something about the lead character: A detective. Now, is this character a police detective? A private investigator? Well, now let’s start working on the character.
I spent a good amount of time reading J.D. Robb’s “In Death” series and I’m not ashamed to say that her character, Lieutenant Eve Dallas, was a very strong influence in much of the personality of Sergeant Ayano “Aya” Hasegawa of the Horizons Station police department. Some of the specific attributes I am drawing for Aya include the determination that they both share to close cases and a touch of social awkwardness. (The latter probably because I have a problem with social awkwardness, so it’s something I personally relate to.) Some significant differences between the two, however, are in background. Where Lt. Dallas had what one could charitably say is a “rough childhood,” Aya grew up almost normally for her time. Her real “defining moment” was witnessing a mugging. And this brings us to our next topic.
Background (Character History)
What makes your character tick? Many would say it’s their personality. Some would say it’s a thousand questions. While neither of these answers are “wrong,” they’re also not “right.” What defines both their personality and the “thousand questions” often asked as part of a character sketch is their own history.
Your personality of a combination of genetic and sociological influences. I say “influences” because the genetic code only provides some predispositions, or natural inclinations, that may or may not take flight. However, those influences may color a character, but more on that later. Even your sociological influences don’t really define your personality entirely.
So, what does this mean for us? Well, the character’s core personality is defined by their genetic and sociological influences. But their true personality is defined by their history…by the things they’ve done and the things done to them. Let’s look at this a bit closer. Say you have Julia and Rachel, two identical twins. So identical that they share all the same genetic code. They were raised by a loving mother and a workaholic father. They’re both smart, perhaps gifted, especially for sciences which they get from their mother, and they both have beautiful singing voices from their father. Their mother encourages them to “question everything” while their father encourages them to “have faith in something” and they have the same friends, go to the same high school, and are in the same extracurricular activities. They should be a duplicate of each other, right? Wrong! When they were ten, they were riding bicycles down the drive and Rachel hit a rock. She was thrown violently from the bike, broke her arm in four places and broke her back. The doctors feared she would never walk again, though she did prove them wrong after about a year of healing and another of psychical therapy. Ever since that accident, she refused to ever touch a bicycle again, while Julia grew up to ride motorcycles. That one event, when everything else between them is identical, makes them unique. On an aside, that single event is also a “defining event” or “key event” in Rachel’s past. (Rachel and Julia may make an appearance in my writing. These two characters are just too juicy to let go, even if I did create them as an example.)
Let them go
Now, all this is all well and good, but how do you create this detailed personal history? Me, I just ask the character. Okay, okay, I promise I’m not (entirely) crazy. What I do is focus on the character concept and start slowly adding and discarding tidbits, letting the character grow into its own entity. This could be said, in a way, to be similar to creating a tulpa. I focus on the character, working details until I get “No, it’s not ‘A’, it’s ‘F’” or something similar.
Your mileage may vary
So, the first two sections are the generic things that help make your character’s more real. The last one is what I do to breath a touch of life into them. Of course, using my techniques, your mileage may vary. But this should be able to spring-board your own methods for creating characters. If my techniques work for you, even better.