One of the key elements of character development is the ability to see through your character’s eyes. Get a good look at how they see the world, what they perceive as good or bad and WHY they perceive it as good or bad.
You need to think about where that person came from. What their childhood was like, their parents, peers, interests… if your character is an evil wizard, why did he choose to become an evil wizard? Did he choose it? What was he like as a child? What was life like growing up? What kind of environment is he used to? Asking yourself questions like these is imperative to the development of your character, even if the readers never see that part of it. The important thing is that you know.
The “why” of things is very important. Motive is for more than just detective stories. It is a vital part of ALL storytelling. There must be a motive, and it needs to makes sense. A good character is one that feels as real as a personal friend or enemy. Realism, no matter what genre you’re writing, helps bring that person to life.
We want to make our creations leap off the page and into the third dimension. To do that, we need to make clear WHY they do what they do and feel how they feel. To just say, “Well, he’s just nuts, that’s why,” is a cop out. He might be insane, sure, but how so? How long has he been insane? Was he born that way? If your character has a mental illness do research and define it. Be specific. Even if you don’t reveal to the readers just what exactly is wrong with them, the fact that you know will make it that much more believable. Readers/fellow roleplayers can sense when there’s something going on they aren’t privy to and it keeps them coming back for more.
Here are some ideas of basic questions to ask your character to get a feel for his/her/its history.
- What was your childhood like? Who were your parents? Did you know them? How do you feel about them? How do your parents feel about you? If your parents didn’t raise you who did and why? Did you have a lot of friends growing up? What memories stand out? What impact did your childhood have on who you are now? Do you have siblings? How big is your family? How close are they? Do they keep in touch?
- Where are you from? What culture did you grow up with? What culture do you feel closest to? What traditions do you believe in? What weather are you used to? How are you used to interacting with people? Are you used to people who are different from yourself? What kinds of foods are you used to? What are you willing to try? Do you believe in gender roles or certain types of moral behavior? How do you feel about Politics? Religion? What do you base this on? How many places have you lived? How has this impacted you? Is there somewhere that stands out as home?
- How do you earn a living? Is this the career you always wanted? Did you dream of something else when you were young? Did you do something else before? How long have you had this job/career/trade? What do you like about it? What do you hate about it? What exactly does it involve? Ideally, what do you want? Is money or the job more important? Have you had to sacrifice money for job satisfaction or vice versa? Did you have to work hard to get to your skill level, or did you go with her natural strengths or both?
- Who was your first love? Did you even have a first love? What is your perception of romance? Is that what you want? Why did or didn’t it work out? What happened? Have you fallen in love since? Have you tried to avoid it? Are you searching for a soul mate? Do you care? Why? Do you have children? That you know of?
If you have a culture in mind already that has a basis in reality or an established fantasy world, look into those cultures, read as much as you can about them and see what strikes you as true to that character or different about that character from the norm. The same goes for worlds and cultures of your own creation. Figure out as much as you can about the world, then how your character fits (or doesn’t fit) in.
Challenge yourself. Work with creations that are very different from yourself. They need to be their own person. A story full of characters that are just like you loses it’s credibility. Each character should be their own unique person with personalities all their own.
Especially with characters you strongly disagree with or have a very different perception of reality than, you need to be able to argue their side of it to be able to write for them in a believable way. When you can understand how they feel and what they think, they will become more realistic when they interact with other characters. This doesn’t mean you have to change your mind and agree with them. All it means is that you are able to see where they are coming from and how this influences their behavior.
Learning these skills can even be useful in your real everyday life. The practice of using a combination of imagination and knowledge to better understand the “why” of what people do is a huge step towards compassion. When you understand things from the point of view of someone you don’t even like, never mind agree with, it makes it harder to foster hate. Putting oneself in the shoes of someone they’ve long thought to hate, and seeing them as another rounded human being, can do wonders for the spirit and for a person’s happiness.