I’d say creating characters that seem real and believable is one of the hardest things to do in fiction writing. I came across some advice very early on in my writing career on this topic, and I’ve never forgotten it. (Fortunately – otherwise I wouldn’t be able to reproduce it for you here come to think of it). It was a test, or benchmark, for a fully fleshed-out main character: if you met him or her in real life, outside the confines and context of the plot, would you recognise them? I don’t mean physically. Coming up with the way a character looks is the easy part. I mean if you overheard them in conversation, would you say ‘Ah – I know him!’ Would you have a pretty good idea how they were going to react to something you said, or be able to guess how certain situations would affect them emotionally?
I ‘ve referred to main characters, but with some thought and a few subtle touches this can be achieved with minor characters too, even ones who hardly do or say much. I think it’s fair to say that in these cases you can if you want use what I would call ‘stock characters’, i.e. alpha males/females, the shy retiring types, the forgetful, the optimistic or the merchant of doom. Main characters need more depth, but I think it’s perfectly acceptable to take characters like this off the shelf – as long as you give them your own twist. For example, something that surprises the reader about the stock character can make a big difference. If your protagonist one day hears that the ‘shrinking violet’ once tackled armed robbers, or that the alpha male is frightened of pigeons in the street etc etc suddenly we see them in a new light and it makes us think about them a bit more.
In the manuscripts I get to read, this is one of the areas where writers fall short. I’m sure I fall short plenty of times too – because the problem with this is that it is a test that you can only really apply after you’ve created the character – it’s not nearly so helpful in the actual creation itself. But even here there are props and short-cuts.
Has any writer really created a complete character out of nothing? I doubt it, because when we think of people or character traits we must invariably be influenced by our own experiences and memories of people we know or know of. Where else could the information come from? Some of the best writers have based characters very heavily on themselves or people they know and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. As long as you can turn an aspect of yourself or a person you know into an interesting and convincing character on the page I really don’t think it matters!
Personally, I draw up a very brief character biography. Some writers go to great lengths, maybe even creating a questionnaire which they get their character to fill in! I don’t go to those lengths but I can see how it works for some. The reason I don’t do that is that I have found that my characters tend to change and grow with the story. I discover things about them I never knew as the story unfolds and they face different situations, so trying to build up too detailed a picture before I’ve even started feels forced, and of limited use anyway.
Also, I do base most of my characters on people I’ve come across, and in that way I don’t need a long and detailed background sheet. I only use real people as a starting point, and then see where it leads within the context of the plot. So my mini biographies consist mostly of physical stuff like height and build etc, a few notes on background and maybe mannerisms or habits of speech; but in most cases there’s also a note saying ‘Think Joe Bloggs’. Joe Bloggs can be a friend, someone I’ve worked with – or even another fictional character.
It’s a question of whatever works for you – but once they’re up and running, do see if they pass the test!