The following is a modified excerpt from the Shadowrun Second Edition handbook.
It has been modified to apply to all categories of writing instead of just the Shadowrun universe…
Fleshing out your characters
When you are initially creating characters, and to get the most out of their personality or traits, you should flesh out your character and really bring it to life. A character without a background is just like a sketch without rendering. You have to really bring the character to life to make it a believable character.
What follows is one approach that many authors, playwrights, and screenwriters take to create their characters. When answering the following questions, really stop and think about them. The responses to these questions will help you create a more realistic, fuller character with a broader background, and ultimately a character that is more relatable. And always remember, you can expand upon this character design later.
Each person should jot these questions down on a separate piece of paper and answer them, as fully as possible, for their character. Points to take into consideration and possible repercussions of a decision follow each questions.
1. What is the character’s sex?
The choice might seem simple; male or female, but the choic may make a difference. There are very specific biological, sociological, and, some say, psychological perspectives and needs are different in men and women. For example, sexism might apply to a corporate manager, especially when it comes to advancement or raises. Even a homeless person might regard sex in terms of whom to approach. What happens when a male character meets a female, and she just so happens to be frighteningly sexist?
2. What is the character’s physical size?
Is the character a tall, skinny dwarf? Maybe a short, stout elf? Or perhaps they are just average build and height.
3. What is the color of the character’s hair, eyes, and skin?
There’s natural color, and then there’s augmented color. Modern cosmetics are amazing, and to some degree or another, used by everyone (both sexes). What color, or even colors, is the character’s hair? In what styles might he or she wear it? Why do they wear it that way? What about eye color? Is it natural? Perhaps they have some sort of modification that could change the color. For example, what if the character you are developing for is a futuristic character, and they have cyber eyes that can look like almost anything. Or maybe the character needs glasses, wears contacts, or has had corrective eye surgery (another thing that can change eye color). What about skin color?
Humanity throughout the generations has always found ways to spread ideals of hate and lies based around people’s appearance, so these are all things to consider closely when designing your character as they could change the way the world you are developing as a whole approaches your character and their overall viewpoint of the character itself. Skin color, in particular, seems to be a hot-button topic. Consider the overall appearance of your character and the reactions that the people around them will have to really give your character a personality and reaction to the world. Keeping your character rooted this way will really help to ground your character in the environment you’ve created.
4. What is the character’s general appearance?
How is the character’s posture? Does the character stand erect or stooped? How about the clothes they wear typically? Perhaps they dress stylishly or inconspicuously? Because of their appearance, maybe they appear intimidating or casual. Is the character attractive, and why might the opposite sex think so? Is there something distinctive in the shape of their head, face or limbs? Perhaps they have terrible scars covering their entire body, this would be something to consider and really flesh out the why here. Or maybe they have some disfigurement, explain why they have such a thing. And finally, what might someone seeing this character for the first time think? Consider that small dwarf you’ve designed, for example, perhaps the world around them would make fun of them because of their height, or this might even give this character the hidden intimidation because people wouldn’t expect it out a character with this stature.
5. Where was the character born?
A character growing up in Seattle would have a completely different outlook on life that a character growing up in, say, tribal New Guinea. Heck, even a child growing up in a rich neighborhood will have a completely different viewpoint than one growing up just a few blocks away in a neighborhood on the ‘wrong side of the tracks’. Decide into what country, state, province, city, and, if possible, neighborhood (or at the very least what poverty level) the character was born into. Many psychologists argue that what we are as adults is influenced directly by who we were as children. Think about the character’s childhood, neighborhood, friends, and family.
6. What is the character’s age?
When a character was born is just as important as where. Consider this: a character born before any of the World Wars started might have developed completely different than a person born during the technology boom of the 1980’s. The many events that you have, fictional or not, can completely change the direction and outlook of not only your character, but the world around your character. You must also think directly on how these events affected him or her. Perhaps it could have even affected those around them and made the individual an introvert.
For example, perhaps on your timeline of events that you could have created, maybe there was a war somewhere along the way that changed entire nations and rebuilt a whole country. Perhaps this new society was matriarchal and your character was born into this as a male. Consider what kind of effects this might have upon your character’s overall advancement. Maybe because of this situation, your character might not be able to reach certain degrees of promotion. Think about what kinds of psychological effects this can have upon your character, and their outlook upon those around them.
7. What was the character’s family?
What did the character’s parents do? What was the family’s means of support? Were they married, separated, divorced, widowed? What was family life like? Does the character have any siblings? Where are they now? What do they do? Does the character keep in contact with them? Did the character even know his or her birth family? If not, consider what there surrogate family was like.
Another example, what if the family had been a group of drug running cartel members? How would a character born into this lifestyle had been affected in the long run? What if there had been no surviving members, would they have gone after the mob group as a revenge mission?
8. Has the character themselves begun their own family?
Is the character married, divorced, separated, or widowed? Does the character have children, and if not, would they ever consider having them? These choices begin to flesh out the psychological impact your character might have overall. Perhaps because of the fact that they want children really badly, they consider stealing children from others to create their own surrogate family. Or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, maybe they despise family and thus are the loner mercenary archetype.
9. Where or how was the character educated?
Where did the character learn their skills? Did they go to high school? Perhaps they even entered into higher education. Where? Was the schooling public, private, perhaps even corporate-sponsored? Was the character privately tutored, or did they get their lessons from the school of hard knocks?
A character growing up with a street-bred education will have completely different experiences than a character growing up in a pampered, private education. Consider the overall outlook the character would have based upon this question. An expensive private education might have a broader intellectual pursuit, but how well would it be applied in a run-and-gun approach. A gang member might have much better knowledge on how to break into a building or steal a car or even on a psychological level, cope with quick decision and problem solving. Whereas the nerdy, back-of-class bookworm that never got to experience such things would buckle under the pressure of having to do such on-the-spot thinking.
10. What is the character’s occupation?
What does the character do overall to make money? Perhaps they are doing something ‘illegitimate’. Do they enjoy what they are doing? What would they enjoy doing more? Would the character ever consider stopping this job? And if so, would they go back?
Morality plays a huge part in what a character would or would not find appropriate for a job. A character that enjoys street racing might not enjoy an adventure in a library and thus the dialogue could contain hefty complaints about doing such things or might not even fit unto that specific scenario at all. And the same could be said about the opposite situation. It goes to show that what a person does and the motivations involved can have a direct impact upon their personality and the why’s of what they do.
11. What about the character’s political and religious beliefs?
These are sure-fire argument starters, but what about it? Does the character have any defined political beliefs? What are those beliefs? Was the character’s family religious? Are they still? Did the character change religions, and if so, why?
To further expand upon the character’s background, one must think about every aspect of their background. A character with ties to a god-fearing, eco-terrorist group might have a dramatically different opinion of the world than a crooked communist politician. Try to describe in detail the specific aspects of what a character would think about the political and religious side of things, especially if it relates to the overall story in which you are creating.
12. What is the character’s moral code?
Will the character kill? Why? When did the character decide they could? Does the character think killing is acceptable? Under what circumstances? Where does the character stand on related issues like capital punishment, abortion, and euthanasia? Does there character adhere to a strict personal sexual ethics code, or even think about it?
The more fleshed out the specifics of the character and their overall moral standing, the better overall. Consider even the taboo when designing a character. Things as simple as a character’s overall view on homosexuality or polygamy might even be considered.
13. Does the character have any goals?
Does the character ever think about things other than the here and now? Or is the character satisfied with how things are currently? If not, why not? Does the character plan on changing things? How? How long will this take, and is the character willing to wait that long?
This type of question can have some serious repercussions upon the overall story you’re designing. Say you’ve designed a character with no goals in mind. What’s to say that this character even wants to follow suit with what the other character’s they are working with? Perhaps you’ve decided this early on and can make a large story arc out of this. Maybe one character has the goal of being able to unite a nation to do battle upon a common enemy, but some of the other character’s you’ve developed have a different agenda, even secretive. What’s to stop them from conflicting later to become enemies in your initial character’s design? These are things you must consider when creating a character especially if you are considering a large host of characters that all work together for a common goal. Don’t make them all static characters that just follow one blindly. Give them all differing goals to really make things interesting.
14. What path led the character to the current goal they are on?
Does the character prefer the cheap thrill or maybe they are only in the plot for the short term? Perhaps they are in it solely for the money and fame that might follow. Or, maybe they are in it just for the personal gain. Would any event or circumstance make the character consider dropping what they are doing to leave?
Perhaps some character’s you’ve created don’t share the same motivations as others. You must also consider the opposite spectrum when creating characters that not all characters are good. Maybe the more vindictive of a character you have, the more they want to keep an eye upon the main characters. The saying goes, after all, “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer”. You must consider the history of each and every character you design. Perhaps some characters haven’t followed the same paths but meet in the end because of a common goal.
15. What is the character’s overall personality?
Is the character pessimistic? Idealistic? Radical? Conservative? Resigned? Easy-going? Militant? Aloof? Intense? Bombastic? Obsessive? Superstitious? Extroverted? Introverted? Ambivalent? Rational? Opinionated? Passionate? Questioning?
Realistically any amount of adjectives can be placed here to describe. But perhaps the best route to take would be to combine them and maybe even explain why the character is that way. Even combine multiple for interesting, even comedic approaches. A character that is both militant, but obsessive-compulsive might make for an interesting combination. Maybe you’ve created a character that is extremely smart, and thus introverted, but has no people skills what-so-ever, so when they meet with others, they completely fumble every single conversation.
16. What special qualities does the character possess?
This does not necessarily refer to skills, but to what the character can do well. Does the character get along well with people? Skilled in business or technology? Prioritizing? Planning ahead?
This question applies to the indirect aspects a character might possess. Going with the example above, perhaps this character is extremely knowledgeable in technology and perhaps has a science degree, thus the character might only be able to talk well about these subjects.
17. Are there certain things a character just cannot do?
Get close to people? Perceive themselves realistically? Work well with others? Think clearly under stress? Handle money well?
Think of these as flaws a character might possess. There is no balancing system when creating a character so you can have as many flaws and bonuses as you’d like. Maybe your character has arachnophobia, so the moment a spider of any size appears, the character flees for the hills. Maybe they are a complete pacifist and thus cannot harm another in any capacity. Jot down a few flaws that you can think of and continue adding them as your character builds up steam during your writing.
18. What does the character hate?
Corporations? Working menial labor? Personal questions? Sentimentality? The media? Family? Certain people, or perhaps society in general?
While the flaws above are related to things like allergies or physical and mental ailments, these describe more what a character despises more than anything else. Possibilities could include a character you’ve created that just flat out hates country music and reacts in a very negative way whenever this type of music plays. Or maybe they hate cigarettes and thus whenever they enter a bar or are around people smoking it enrages them. As you flesh out your character, their personality should show through and you might be able to add things that they hate based upon your own personal experiences or the experiences of others.
19. What does the character love?
The seashore? The view from tall buildings? Quiet? Loud music? Art? Taking care of business? A specific person? A certain place?
The question seems simple, but you must think about the opposite end of the rope when considering it. What if you had a character that hated guns, but loved the thought of being a gunsmith. It’s these outlandish combinations that sometimes make for interesting character design.
20. What is the character’s name?
While it might seem simple to ask this question at first, think about the following: What is their birth name? What name does the character use currently? Did the character choose this name, or did they gain it through a nickname or joke?
Maybe a character you’ve developed decided that they wanted to disown their family and thus completely changed their name in order to hide from them. A simple question such as your name might be simple to think about up front, but there are many factors that could affect the decision to reveal your real name up front. People’s motivations are usually directed right up front by the use of their name. A name like Damien usually invokes thoughts of evil. But then consider if you used it with something like Saint. “Damien Saint” just doesn’t ring as an evil genius that you’ve designed them to be. Think closely about the name and the overall purpose of your character.
A CHARACTER IS BORN!