I usually start with a name. Every character should have a name, even if he, she or it never even speaks in the story. I should qualify this. If you are writing a story set some place where all your characters know each other they should all have name. If on the other hand, your story is set in a large city like London or New York, you can get away with just a brief description of very minor characters. In movies, these characters would be extras. All the other characters should have names.
You need to get to know your characters before you can move them onto your stage. Aside from their names, you need to know what they look like, what they like and don’t like, what they do for a living, and other personal details like that. How does your main character dress, is it careless with its clothes? What does it like to eat? In other words, interview your character before you write one word of the story.
Novelist Nancy Kress developed a Mini-Bio that she fills out for her characters, I found it on page 16 of the 2005 edition of her book, Characters, Emotions and Viewpoint available from Writers Digest Books and in bookstores. She uses this Mini-Bio as a first step in creating her characters. Then she fills out a character chart on the ones she decides to hire as characters in her books. Rebecca Sinclair has one you can use at
http://www.eclectics.com/articles/character.html. This chart is six pages long, but you don’t have to complete it fully, although doing so will allow you to get to know your character well. Another tool is the resume. There are plenty of templates for different kinds of work; I got my characters’ resumes by choosing from the many templates available in Microsoft Word and at the Microsoft website. If you can find one based on the type of work your character does, it helps bring that character to life. That’s what you want; a living breathing character is much more believable than a plastic or cardboard one. You want to add depth to your character by delving into its wants and desires.
Interviewing your character is another good way to get to know it. Sit down at lunch with it. Take it to your favorite restaurant. What does it choose from the menu? Does it want to eat before talking, or talk as it eats? What does it want to talk about? Does it have any interesting hobbies? Does it enjoy sports? What sports? Is your character active? Does it go running every morning? Or is it a couch potato? Remember, these are your character’s likes and dislikes, not yours. It’s ok if they share some of your interests, but make sure that all the characters in your story are individuals with individual likes and dislikes. It’s ok to let your characters likes and dislikes to overlap yours and each other’s, that mirrors life. That’s how organizations are formed. What organizations, clubs and societies does your character belong to? Does it belong to any? Is your character a joiner? Or a loner?
Does your character keep a diary? Could you get a peek at that diary? This is where you have to get sneaky. Read your character’s personal papers, emails or blogs. Does it pay its bills on time? Is it constantly overdrawn at the bank? Is it deep in debt or does it have a good grip on its finances?
What is its family life like? Is it a quiet happy family or a rowdy happy one? Does your character hate its siblings and/or parents? What about spouses and significant others? How does everyone get along? Are there a lot of hugs and kisses or screaming fights? These little details can make your character pop off the page and grab your reader. This is what you want. In order to breathe life into your characters, you have to spend time with them before your story starts. The more real your characters are, the more your reader will connect with and worry about them. That’s your goal. Now go out there and find yourself a character to develop.