One of my favorite parts of starting a new writing project is making my characters come to life. I like to jot down a few specific features about each one and then see how they interact with each other on the page to flesh them out more fully. Programs like Scrivener have great features for organizing character profiles, but I’ve also had success with just using a plain old notebook from the bargain bins. Here are some of the features I like to figure out about my characters before I start writing:
1. Age/Physical Description
This seems pretty basic, but knowing how mature your character is helps you imagine how they’ll speak and interact with other characters. Age is a huge factor in YA novels, and the difference just a year or two can make in a character’s maturity or agency is incredible. In my home state, for example, a 16-year-old can only legally drive to school and home after months of driving with adult supervision, but a 17-year-old can drive anywhere. The world is her oyster! A detailed physical description is beneficial as well. It will help you when you’re 60,000 words into your first draft and you know your main character has black hair, but you can’t recall if she has a prophetic scar on her right arm or her left when she reaches out to steal the Magic Item, and it’ll save you lots of time scrolling back through your document trying to find where you first mentioned it.
You don’t have to have a day-by-day record of each character’s entire life, but you should know a few major events, even (perhaps, especially) in the lives of your minor characters. It’s easy for characters with less page time to become flat and unbelievable compared to your intricately-researched main character, when really every character should have their own motivators for their behavior in the story. You’ll probably remember hearing that every villain sees themselves as the hero of their own story. Keep that in mind for all characters; each one should have their own inspiration/motivation that governs and directs their behavior. Especially in YA, writers often forget that adult characters deserve this same attention. If you’re worried about getting mom and dad “out of the way” for plot reasons, you might look carefully at constructing a backstory for them that makes it plausible for them to be absent for much of the action.
Everyone has at least one thing that they feel passionately about. And perhaps it’s something that they feel passionately against. For example, I like to list things that my main character absolutely loves: Ford Mustangs, dogs, frozen pizza. Things she absolutely hates: people who pity her, broken things, Chevrolet Camaros. Things she wants: to see the ocean, to someday own a house with stairs, the cute character she’ll meet in chapter one. Knowing what a character is passionate about brings them to life and helps you as the writer formulate a working plot. So many conflicts can be described as what a character wants but can’t have, or what a character doesn’t want but is forced to face.
4. Quirks & Quips
When you imagine your character, how do you picture them moving, talking, laughing? Are there certain swear words they love to use, inside jokes between characters, a trademark eyebrow raise or a high-pitched laugh? This is the place to jot those things down. It’s also something to look back at after you’ve finished your first draft to see if you’ve overused these. I know that sounds counterproductive, but someone wise pointed out to me that my favorite stubborn main character crossed her arms in nearly every other scene, a quirk of hers that had to be toned down a little.
These are the main things that I look at before I start writing, and I find that as I begin drafting and each character gets more page time, I often add to the lists or modify them. Some of my characters don’t develop a real sense of self until the third or fourth chapter, and then I update my character profiles and go back to the first couple of chapters in my manuscript and add these small details like a phrase they might use, or the way they would shrug instead of respond angrily when someone made a comment that offended them.
Do you have any great tricks for building well-developed characters? If so, I’d love to hear them in the comments below!