Building a fictional character is the same thing as meeting a stranger and getting to know her. Take that meeting one step at a time, or as the old saying goes, peal that onion one layer at a time. With each layer you’ll get to know more about that stranger, and your character will become a fully developed person to you and your readers.
With a first meeting you get a first impression
We might not admit it, but we usually judge people right off within seconds of seeing them for the first time. Maybe it’s completely physical judgment, or maybe it’s their surroundings, but we take a quick snapshot and make up our minds about this person, at least to a certain point. Some of the first things we probably notice in that quick snapshot are gender, age, body build, and hairstyle. That first snapshot is all we need in our minds to lay the groundwork for a strong character, but remember, it’ s only groundwork.
Clothing gives you your second impression.
Is she wearing jeans and a cowboy hat, is he wearing a suite? You take a better look at the clothes and notice if they are wrinkled, faded, expensive, in style, bold, or even a work uniform. What about a cheap watch, or a glittering, huge diamond ring? Each of those things can tell you a little, and sometimes a lot, about the character this person is and the life this person lives.
It’s been seconds, but you already have an idea in your mind about who this person is, their station in life, and even how you feel about them. The same is true within seconds of that character introducing him or herself into a writer’s mind.
Now take a look around this stranger–your character–and other impressions might influence your opinion. Surroundings can tell you a good deal. Is she standing on a street corner waiting for a bus, is he standing next to a police car, is she sitting behind a high-polished desk in a big office or sitting on a Harley Davison? What about any possessions you can see? Just step back, pull away and look closer. Does he have a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist? Does the building she is standing in front of look like the rent would cost enough to support a small county, or does it look like her neighbors probably spend as much time in jail as they do in their little cramped apartments?
Now look at how the person is standing, the expression on her face. Body language can color in some more blank spots. Is she smiling a fake smile, are his fists clinched? Does she walk across a room like she owns it, does he stand stiff and tall? Does she glance away and avoid prolonged eye contact, does he cross his arms over his chest and stand as far away from others in the room as he can? Or maybe her smile even shines through her eyes, or he reaches out to grasp the hand of anyone he says hello to?
What about voice?
Accent, choice of words, tone, volume, all tell us a lot about a person, even before we count in what they are saying. How a character speaks may often tell us where they are from, how educated they are, something about their temper and even their lifestyle and job.
Okay, we’ve met our stranger, and we’ve heard them speak. That little bit and we already have a bunch of layers pealed away from that onion. But if we want to get to know this person better, it’s going to take a lot more time and work. If we were talking about a real stranger, one we hit it off with or had to spend time with even if we didn’t, we would get to know about them little by little, maybe over a period of years. We would learn about their jobs, their friends, their family, their likes, their homes, their dislikes, their habits, even their childhoods.
We need all of that same info to build a believable character, but we don’t have years to fill in all of the dots.
With speed in mind, and detail, take that snapshot back out. It was a good starting point, but I bet we can get a little more out of it. Maybe there are other things in the picture that you didn’t see the first time or didn’t really pay any attention to. Maybe she is holding flowers because she loves to work in the yard and grow her own. Maybe there’s a framed photo on his desk of him and two children but no wife.
Maybe she is holding a couple of law books in her hand because she is a lawyer, or in school studying to be one. Just keep expanding that little snapshot, maybe even take a couple of more if needed, fitting a few more people into the frame, until you’ve got everything from them that you can.
You’re doing great, but now it’s time to get really personal.
Strangers become friends, or sometimes not friends, after we spend time talking.
Even if they ask a question and you are the one answering, they often comment back in some way that reveals some piece of who they are to you. Of course it’s not polite to meet a person and start asking questions, much less asking question after question. But since we are building a character here, we can get away with it. So ask. Ask lots of questions of this character who popped into your mind. (Be ready to write down the answers, either with pen and paper, or the keyboard.) You need to know a lot about him or her. Everything almost.
As you do your interrogation find out where he lives, who her friends are, who’s missing from his life, how close she is with her family, who his enemies are, what kind of possessions does he value, even if she is a morning person or needs two cups of coffee to speak hello.. Don’t forget about things like her favorite food, worst nightmare, pets, secret dream, fears, worst mistake, and all of the rest. You don’t want to just find out what his job is, but how does he feel about it, how did he get it, who he works with, and whatever else you think of.
Every question you learn the answer to is one more layer of that onion, one more thing that will help your character become flesh and blood to you. Even things from her childhood are important here. We are a combination of everything we experience in life, so the kind of childhood your character had made him who he is and causes him to react to things the way he does. Everything I mentioned above, when you hold the answers to them, are pure gold when you are writing a story. It’s all of these little details that will make a character come across as true to your readers, and not just a half-formed apparition that walks across your pages doing what you need for each scene, out of character or not.
One final note: Don’t add everything you know about your character into your story.
There will be lots of things that you get answers to that you need to know because it helps you understand how this character will act or react to any situation, but that doesn’t mean the reader needs to know all of it. If you add in that many details and that much back-story, your reader is likely to fall asleep in the middle of the first chapter. None of us what that result after all of our hard work.