In a novel or short story you need characters that seem as real as possible and act in ways that make sense to the reader. Some people make a grand production of creating characters, filling out a 25 page character sheets, writing character episodes and even drawing artwork of their characters to get a real feel of what they look like. Other people just some open a baby name book, randomly choose a name and say, “Frank. Yeah, Frank is a great name for my stereo typical warrior.” And then they proceed to write the same warrior that has been found in every formulaic fantasy novel since the 1970s.
To get a truly believable character for your fiction writing, you probably have to fall somewhere between those two extremes. Of course, if you enjoy delving into the deep dark secrets of every character you make you can use character sheets and write stories of the character that will not end up in your finished novel. For simple characters, like the back up guy who gets killed by the rampaging werehog halfway through chapter 2, you probably could just give them the name and set them loose on your pages.
The most important question to ask when creating characters for fiction is, “why?”
Let’s say you are looking for a protagonist for your fantasy novel about a milkmaid’s father who goes off to fight in the Kings war but ends up uncovering the secret genetic testing laboratory run by an evil centaur instead. This man, because he is going to be on practically every page of the story, has to be really well thought out. How he acts and reacts, and what he says to the people he meets, will depend upon his past experience, attitudes and mindsets.
The milkmaid’s father — we’ll call him Frank — can be organized in a character sheet easily, but that does not give the whole story. Frank could have dark brown hair that’s slightly graying at the sides and a injured knee which gives him a distinctive limp. You could know that besides the milkmaid he also has two sons and a pet dog. You could know that he worships the god Blurb and is a supporter of the current king. You could even know stuff like what food he likes or what he’s likely to do when confronted with danger: run or fight?
The most important thing is WHY he does what he does. Why does Frank have injured knee? Did he used to be a soldier or was he attacked by a wild boar? Was he attacked by a wild centaur? That could definitely color his interaction with those involved in the genetic testing ring he discovers. Why does Frank support the king? Is he political at all? When he finds out that the king has been covering up the evil centaur’s activities, how will his opinion change?
Most people in the real world have a reason for everything they do. Psychologists may say it all starts in childhood, and it should for your characters as well. Even though these past experiences will not make it into your story, they still tell you why the character acts know the way he does. And if you can come up with a believable reason why a character is doing what he’s doing, your readers will believe it too.