A lot of authors have given the advice that you have to really know your characters. Like really know them. I’ve met authors who know the most random facts about their characters like what their favorite band was 15 years before the story even starts or what their favorite (and second favorite) colors are. And when giving advice on character creation, they often rattle off some huge checklist that you’re supposed to go through to make sure you’ve nailed down every single detail about the people who are going to be featured in your story.
If this works for you, awesome. Continue what you’ve been doing. But personally, I find this approach a little overwhelming. I don’t do well with checklists or huge questionnaires. I prefer to consider how the character works in my story in a more natural way. When I come up with the story I have ideas about what this person should do already. It’s a matter of making them more interesting, giving them some strengths, weaknesses, and a back story.
In order to generate all of this information, I mind map.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the technique, mind mapping is a method of brain storming that (to me at least) feels very organic. You can do it very visually, as represented above, or you can do it in more of a rough list format, which is what I tend to do. Either way, the idea is to take what you know about your character and how he or she interacts with the story and setting, and then flesh it out with whatever connections you can draw.
One way to start is with your character’s name at the center. Then you can draw branches out from there, creating a new one for each tidbit of information you already know about the character. If you don’t have anything to add, move on to the next branch, but often I find one idea about something will lead to another, and sooner or later I’ve started fleshing out certain aspects of the character’s back story, family life, or relationships that I hadn’t considered before. But rather than staring down a question on a list, I’m thinking it through as an extension of what I already know.
This also works well if you know that you need someone to fulfill a specific role in your story, but you don’t know who that person is. For example, say you need a pilot on the ship for your space opera adventure. Just put pilot in the center circle and start brain storming out whatever you think of when you think of a pilot. You may find on first attempt that your character ends up sounding very stereotypical or trope-based. In that case, you can go back and change around some of the information, even try making it directly opposite to what you started with.
This method won’t tell you every single detail about your characters, but it will let you dig into the meat of them enough to start writing. As a storyteller, I’m sure you already know a good deal about your characters (perhaps even more than you think you do), it’s just a matter of getting them to a point where they can hit the page and feel authentic.
As I said, the whole check list, questionnaire, or character sheet thing didn’t work too well for me, but I’ve found that this does. I think discovering the smaller details about a character as you write him or her is part of the fun, and all I need are some of the meatier details that are going to drive this person forward and inform their decisions and relationships. This method does just that.
Have you found using mind mapping helpful? How do you go about creating characters for your stories? If you have any thoughts or comments, please share! I’m always curious to hear about other people’s methods.
Belinda Ray does a great job on YouTube of showing the method I described, along with a couple of others. Her channel has some other videos on writing and story construction as well that you may want to view.