Building Character Step by Step

Characters are one of the three essential elements of every story, along with conflict and setting. That means the more vibrant, alive, and relatable your characters are, the more engaging your story will be. The more engaging your story is, the more people will read and recommend your books. The more people who do that, the more money you will make from your writing. 

Whether your goal is to write a really good story, or to earn an income as a writer, you serve that goal by filling your books with great characters. Although you can take entire semester-long graduate level classes on this exact topic, the essentials are easy to grasp. Today we’ll talk about those essentials step by step. 

Creating a good character goes through three stages:

  • The Personal Questions
  • The Story Questions
  • The Details

You can go down some pretty deep rabbit holes with each, but we’ll stay close to the surface here. Later on, once you’ve established your character basics, you’ll know which parts are most important in your story. Go deep on those.

The Personal Questions

Every character starts out with you finding out who they are, independent of the conflict, plot, and setting of your story. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is their name?
  • What is their basic physical description?
  • Where were they born?
  • Where do they live now?
  • How did they grow up?
  • What are they most proud of?
  • What are they most embarrassed or ashamed of?
  • Name three favorites (food/bands/hobby/color/jacket/possession)?
  • Name three dislikes?
  • What do they do for a living?

Example: Derrin Sega is a medium-sized, medium-smart white man with brown hair and brown eyes. He lives in the small seaside town he grew up in, and has been there for 37 years. He grew up a C+ student, and lives a C+ life. He’s not proud of much, but deeply embarrassed by something that happened on prom night, which people in town remember but he’d rather not talk about. His favorite food is sandwiches. His favorite color is tan. His favorite possession is his high school yearbook. He dislikes chaos, clutter, and uncertainty. He works as a janitor at his old high school.

Example: Kai Jefferson is a tall, thin black woman with black, braided hair and eyes the color of her skin. She grew up in Seattle, but moved to a small town on the coast and works remotely as a programmer for Microsoft. She grew up with two proud parents who owned their own business as electricians, and owned more than 2,000 books. She’s most proud of winning the state championship in both chess and wrestling her senior year of high school, and most embarrassed by how much she likes to watch UFC. Her favorite podcasts feature serial killers. Her favorite band is Slayer. Her favorite book is The Marrow Thieves. She dislikes jazz music (her parents’ favorite), wearing red, and being bored. 

See how answering those questions created two very different, very colorful people? You’re probably already making predictions about how they might fit in a story you wrote, or how they might impact one another's lives. 

That’s the goal for the personal questions: get to know your character as a person, not just as a tool that accomplishes plot goals on the page. 

The Story Questions

Once you know who your character is, your next set of questions helps figure out who they are in the context of the story. Start with these questions:

  • What is their core role in the story?
  • How familiar are they with the setting?
  • What important things do they know that most other characters don’t?
  • What important things do they not know that most other characters do?
  • In the context of the story’s main plot, what do they want?
  • What does stress do to them?
  • Are they most motivated by avoiding things they don’t want, or by chasing things they do want?
  • What is their relationship with the protagonist?
  • Who is their worst enemy in the story?
  • Who is their best friend in the story?
  • How will they grow over the course of the story?

Now, we’ll take Derrin and Kai and put them into a small-town murder mystery.

Kai is the protagonist, the only person in town who at first thinks the school librarian found dead on the beach was murdered. She’s new to town, and to its people, so she needs help navigating it. Because of her interest in murder, she knows more than most people about solving mysteries. She wants to find justice for the librarian, even in the face of people not wanting to believe she was murdered. Kai is far more motivated to chase what she wants than by avoiding unpleasantness and danger. She tends to be calm under stress, but needs to either drink or exercise after things calm down. Her worst enemy in the story (other than the murderer) is the town sheriff, who resents her intrusion. Her best friend is her college room-mate, a coroner in Boston who she Skypes with twice a week. Her growth over the story will be to become a respected and accepted member of the community, coming to love a lot of people she had previously underestimated. 

Derrin is a foil and sidekick for Kai. He is deeply familiar with the town, having spent his whole life there. He’s such an average person that he knows lots of secrets: people tend to underestimate and ignore him. However, he’s very naive, and doesn’t know how bad things are in the town’s underbelly. He really wants to prove that the librarian died accidentally, but handles it well when that becomes impossible — and then he wants to solve the murder. Derrin doesn’t seem to experience stress, at least not over and above a baseline level of anxiety he seems to live with at all times. He is motivated entirely by avoiding things he doesn’t want, and isn’t really clear on what he does want. He and Kai met before the story started, when she did a talk on programming for women at the high school, and they bump into each other again early in Kai’s investigations. His worst enemy in the story is Karl, his old high school bully who still treats him badly. Darrin doesn’t have any close friends, but he and the school librarian might have fallen in love if things worked out differently twenty years ago. Over the course of the story, he will become more confident, and even start to form goals for the rest of his life. 

Now you know a lot about both characters, with details that will help you insert them into your story with color and life. They can also help you decide which directions the story goes, since they will both be more likely to do some things than others. 

The Details

Like we said earlier, at the end of this stage, you might want to ask a few other questions specific to your plot. Some examples that might come out for this story include:

  • How will Derrin react when he finds out the librarian was murdered?
  • Is Kai able to physically defend herself from the murderer?
  • Why didn’t Derrin and the librarian end up falling in love? How much does it matter to the story?
  • Does Kai know a lot about murder and crime, or does she just think she knows a lot?
  • What secrets does Derrin know about the town?
  • Where does Kai live? Where does Derrin live?
  • How does Karl continue to treat Derrin badly?
  • What is Kai’s relationship with her best friend like?
  • How much time does Kai spend on the beach? What about Derrin?

Let’s go ahead and answer these questions for each.

When Derrin is finally convinced the librarian was murdered, he will work through the five classic stages of grief, but be stuck on anger for most of the second half of the book. He and the librarian never got together because he chickened out when he could have asked her out. It doesn’t matter to the story, but deeply motivates why he cares whether or not she was murdered. Derrin knows a lot of little secrets about the private lives of the town, but also knows two major secrets that will form clues as the book progresses. Karl insults Derrin whenever they bump into each other in public, but it hasn’t escalated to violence since their 20s. Derrin lives in a tidy, 1-bedroom house on the beach. He goes fishing every morning without fail, and likes to walk the beach when he’s thinking, or sad.

Kai’s let herself go a little since her championship wrestling days, but can handle herself very well. She doesn’t really brag about that part of her past, so will likely surprise the first person who tries to hurt her. She’s probably about 10% more confident than she is competent with her knowledge of murder and crime, but is very stubborn about that other 10%. Her best friend is the only person she’ll listen to about that. She lives in a nice fourth-floor condo with a view of the ocean and lots of light. It’s a mess. She spends much more time looking at the ocean than she does actually on the beach. 

The Intersections

Once you’ve listed the answers to all the questions above, plus any other questions that have occurred to you, look for the places they intersect. These will be some of the most interesting aspects of your character, and you should do your best to give them space on the page.

Sometimes, those intersections are strengths. For example, Derrin’s “C+ person” and his knowledge of the town’s secrets makes him an unknown but powerful force for solving crimes. Sometimes, those intersections are weaknesses.  Kai’s confidence and amateur expertise in mystery solving could easily combine to lead her down a red herring trail that takes her farther from the truth with each decision she makes.

Sometimes, they can be both, depending on the circumstances. Kai’s relationship with a professional investigator could turn her in the right direction, or it could lead her down the wrong path because her roommate is so far from the situation. These can be some of the most fun intersections, because they provide opportunities for growth, change, and internal conflict for the character in question.

You can also look for intersections between your different main characters.  Derrin is motivated by avoiding trouble, danger, and unpleasantness. Kai doesn’t care about those things, so long as she’s heading for something she wants. This can create all kinds of conflict between them as they figure out the best way to solve the mystery and find justice. 

Homework Time

If you have a story in mind, even if you’ve started work on it, go through this exercise for your protagonist. If you don’t have something in mind yet, do it for a favorite piece of fiction. Just walking through this once can help you embrace and understand character creation at a deeper level, and become a better storyteller overall.