There are many theories and techniques for building great characters. I like to mix and match from various sources. Here are some of my favorites:
Archetypes: Many characters fall into or are a blend of common archetypes: the Bad Boy, the Warrior, the Seductress, the Waif. Studying these archetypes and their common characteristics can help you figure out who your character is, what sort of decisions they’ll make, and what role they’ll play in your story. A good resource for learning the archetypes is “The Complete Writer's Guide to Heroes and Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes,” by Tami D. Cowden, Carolyn LaFever, and Sue Viders.
Zodiac signs: Another fun way of figuring out who your characters are is to read up on the various signs of the zodiac and figure out which one best reflects your character. Some great resources are “The Secret Language of Birthdays” and “The Secret Language of Relationships” by Gary Goldschnieder and Joost Elffers. Another popular book is “Sun Signs” by Linda Goodman.
If you’re writing romance, once you’ve chosen zodiac signs for your hero and heroine, you may have fun reading “Sextrology” and “Cosmic Coupling” by Stella Starsky and Quinn Cox. These books go in-depth into the sexuality of the various zodiac signs, and “Cosmic Coupling” gives detailed descriptions of how any two given signs will interact when it comes to sex and relationships.
Research: Figure out what your character’s profession is, and then research it! What we do for a living heavily influences who we are and our worldview--and vice versa. Learn the details of how your character does their job. You won’t need to put all those details on the page (please don’t!) but giving your readers a sprinkling of the specialized jargon or procedures that your characters use will go a long way toward making them seem real.
If possible, try to meet with experts in your character’s field. For example, if your character is a cop, see if you can interview an officer or go on a ride-along. This will also give you a chance to make friends with an expert who may be willing to vet the details of your book (or answer questions) to make sure you got them right.
People you know: You know plenty of interesting people. Would any of them make great characters? Do they have fascinating or distinctive behaviors, mannerisms, beliefs, or speech patterns that you can give to a character?
Character interviews: Sit down and “interview” your character. What makes them tick? Why do they do the things they do? What matters to them? In a crisis, how will they react? What lengths will they go to if they feel threatened? What’s their favorite book, movie, ice cream flavor? How many times have they been in love--and with whom? And why?
There are a whole bunch of templates on the Internet that have reams of character questions that you can fill out. Aside from establishing your character’s age, height, build, hair color, eye color and other physical characteristics, these templates can help you dig into your characters and learn what’s going on with them.
Some places to start:
Character diamond: Another technique is to develop a character diamond. There are a couple different ways to do this:
o The first method is to assign a character two primary characteristics, one quirky or unexpected characteristic, and another that masks their greatest fear or flaw. These form the four points of the diamond. You’re looking for characteristics that don’t change from moment to moment, but rather are stable. Think of traits, not moods. For example, your character’s primary two characteristics might be Loyal and Pessimistic. Their quirky characteristic might be High-Strung, and their mask characteristic might be Aloof (because they’re afraid to get close to anyone).
o The second method is to focus on how the character’s traits influence the plot. With this method, the four points of the diamond would be: 1) the flaw that masks the character’s greatest fear, 2) the character’s biggest inner fear, 3) the character’s biggest need, and 4) the plan the character devises to achieve that need. This plan of course, doesn’t work as intended!
Some useful resources for developing your own character diamonds:
Goals, Motivations, and Conflicts (GMC): Understanding what motivates your characters will not only help you create believable characters, it will also help you create a believable plot. What are your character’s goals? Why does your character have these goals (motivation)? What is standing in your character’s way of achieving these goals (conflict)? How do your character’s GMCs intersect with the GMCs of other characters? Which characters will be allies, and which will be foes? A great resource for understanding how to apply GMCs to your characters is “GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict” by Debra Dixon.
Dana Delamar is the author of the "Blood and Honor" romantic suspense series, which is set in Italy among the Calabrian Mafia. An avid traveler who loves to learn about different peoples and cultures, Dana often sets her books in exotic locales. She grew up in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest, and today makes Seattle her home. She's an omnivorous reader with overflowing bookshelves and a passionate love of "Supernatural," "Firefly," "True Blood," "Mad Men," and a zillion other TV shows. Where she finds the time to sleep is a mystery.
When she's not writing, Dana is zipping off to visit new locales, dreaming about her next trip to Italy, or narrowly avoiding car accidents while she conjures up exploits for her characters. You can visit her at http://www.danadelamar.com.