In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
[After the situation,] the characters — always flat and unfeatured, to begin with — comes next. You need to be honest about how your characters speak and behave.
Recently I talked about why the situation of your story should come first.
Yes, the situation is important. Essential. Without a compelling a situation to your story, no reader is going to want to read it. Or possibly even pick up your story in the first place.
But coming up with your situation is only the first step. The next part you need to think long and hard about?
You can write the world’s most thrilling, entertaining, surprising, riveting adventure novel, but if the characters are weak and flat on the page, if they speak in ways that are awkward, if there’s nothing motivating them and making them go after a specific goal, your reader won’t care.
Let me repeat that.
Without dynamic, three-dimensional characters in your story, your reader will not care.
Once you’ve come up with a great situation, now it’s time to sit down and come up with your characters.
Start with your protagonist.
Who is the lead of your story? What’s the gender? What’s the age? Where does he or she live? What does he or she look like? What is his or her backstory? What is he or she actively going after in his or her life? What’s the goal?
Figuring out your protagonist is the first important part to coming up with your cast of characters. Don’t begin by thinking about the supporting character who plays an important role in an opening scene. Focus on the main character, and don’t move on to anyone else until you have a strong grip on that character.
This is a stage of your writing you can’t rush, and you can’t skip. Don’t think to yourself, okay, my protagonist is a 35-year-old woman looking for love. She lives in Pittsburgh, and she’s five-foot-three, and she’s got long blond hair.
Okay, I’m done! Time to write!
No, that’s not enough.
You can’t just in your head think of five or six key details and then jump right into your story. You need to be super clear about your protagonist in every way, not just in his or her physical appearance, but in his or her life story, body language, method of speaking, voice, everything.
Even things that will never show up on the page. Things in his or her past that might inform the character but doesn’t actually play itself out in the plot.
Doesn’t matter. YOU need to know it.
And you need to have a fully-realized character before you move on to the next step.
Open a blank Word document page and write a character bio. Write down as much about the character as you can think of. Free-write if you want for ten minutes straight. Write until you can’t think of anything else!
Write enough on your protagonist that you have a solid handle on what makes him or her tick.
Only then should you move on to your supporting characters.
Take the five most important ones and write a detailed character bio for each, not quite as detailed as the bio for your protagonist, but detailed nonetheless.
Write down physical traits, interior traits, a little backstory, character goals, and the like. Fill up pages and pages just talking about your characters. You can use this later when you get stuck in a scene and maybe don’t know how the character would react to a piece of surprising news. Or what words that character might say in this particular exchange of dialogue.
Once you have some pages written on your supporting characters, now move on to the more minor characters.
Ones who appear in your book but aren’t quite as important as the main few. These bios can be shorter. Like four or five sentences. Give a few physical details, maybe something about what they’re going after or trying to find or whatever it is, then move on to the next character.
Once you have written down all the characters you can think of, it’s time to close the document for a day or two, then go back and read through everything you’ve written.
Change what you want to change. Keep the same what you want to keep the same.
Once you feel good about your character bios, and are confident that you have a strong handle on at least your main few characters, particularly the protagonist, it’s time to move on to the next stage.
It’s time to write your story.
No matter what, do not start your next writing project until you have outlined and written about and thought deeply about your characters!
It’s pivotal that you not write one-dimensional characters that have nothing to say and nothing to do. Characters that are mere cliches of people we’ve seen in a hundred other stories.
Make your characters unique, original, fascinating, even groundbreaking. Do something new. Create relationships that are unusual.
Write about someone most people have never read about before.
Do what you can to make for characters that excite the reader and make them want to read on even if they’re not one-hundred-percent engaged in the plot.
Find a compelling situation for your story, and come up with dynamic, three-dimensional characters that ring true, and you will be well on your way to writing a fantastic story!