1. Don’t become over-dependent on character charts. I’ll be honest. I’m not a fan of character charts. I don’t think a lot of the information on them is necessary for creating (or for a writer “getting a grip” on) characters. No one cares how many freckles or moles your character has, or what the character’s favorite flavor of ice cream is, or that the dog they had when they were growing up was a poodle named Muffy, or what job they had when they were 17, unless a detail like that is critical to the story.
The worst thing about character charts is some people fill them out and think they’re done creating their characters.
If you feel that character charts are helpful, by all means, use them. Just realize when you finish one that you’re not done, you’ve only just begun.
2. That said, details are important. Without them, we don’t have iconic aspects of beloved characters such as Indiana Jones’ fedora and bullwhip, Harry Potter’s glasses and lightning-shaped scar, Katniss’ side braid and bow and arrows, Scarlett O’Hara’s dress made out of the draperies, the Batmobile and so on.
But remember, it’s the character who makes the details iconic, not the other way around.
3. Think about how you can relate everything in your story to character. While watching two Syfy reality competition shows, Face-Off (movie make-up artists) and Hot Set (movie set designers), I realized the major thing the competitors do is relate their work to character. For the make-up artists that would seem a no-brainer, since make-up is literally part of the character, but that’s just as much the case with sets. The competitors have to think a lot about the character(s) moving about or living in the settings they create.
Whether you’re writing a novel or a screenplay, it’s important to relate every aspect to character. Plot, theme, dialogue, setting, point of view, even other characters, all these things will have an impact on the characters you are creating.
4. Great characters are a mass of contradictions. If it’s not his hat and whip that make Indiana Jones a great character, what is it about him that does?
He’s an archeology professor, who partakes in expeditions–the more dangerous, the better–to acquire rare and valuable artifacts.
A nerd who seeks out physical danger is a contradiction. (More than that, I’d say he’s a nerd with an addiction to danger, an even bigger contradiction.)
He doesn’t seek to acquire artifacts for personal gain or fame. He does it because he wants them displayed in museums, so everyone can learn from and appreciate them.
Someone who seeks valuable objects without expectation of money, power and/or fame is a contradiction.
Scarlett O’Hara is a pampered Southern belle who not only overcomes the hardships of war, she manages to find ways to flourish in its aftermath. Michael Corleone is the college graduate and war hero who becomes the most ruthless mob boss of all. Oskar Schindler uses Jewish slave labor to make his fortune–and ends up using that fortune to save many of them from the Holocaust.
Finding the contradictions in your character is a major part of creating one that your readers won’t forget.
5. Great characters have to have some area of competence that will make them believable in the tasks they must accomplish. Nothing is more irritating than a character who can do everything well (see point #6). On the other hand, no one is going to believe, say, a character who never held a weapon in her hand before immediately becoming a superb zombie-slayer.
Even if you’re throwing an everyday schmo into an adventure story, he has to have some skills that will make it believable that he can survive and prevail over the forces of antagonism.
Characters should also acquire mastery of skills over the course of a story. A great example would be Arya Stark in the A Song Of Ice And Fire series. She acquires some knowledge from a sword master before being forced to run away and hide after her father is executed. (What’s great is she’s NOT shown to be a master at swordplay, which would have been silly.) Over time, she learns many survival skills, though coming close several times to being discovered while she’s learning them.
6. Great characters are flawed. Perfect people who do everything right all the time are a turn-off. Nobody is perfect in real life. Nor should they be in fiction.
Indiana Jones fails constantly, often losing the artifacts he seeks to others. Scarlett O’Hara is blind to the fact that she’s in love with a man who will never love her back. Michael Corleone’s belief that he’s being strong for his family turns him into a monster. Oskar Schindler is a womanizer and opportunist.
Readers love flawed characters because that’s what makes them seem human and real.
7. Great characters surprise us. Making your characters predictable is as big a sin as making your plot predictable. In fact, it helps to think of plot and character as having a symbiotic relationship. What happens will cause a character to react. How they react shouldn’t always be what we might expect of them. We don’t know ourselves how we’ll react and what actions we’ll ultimately take in situations we find ourselves in. Sometimes we think we know but when confronted with a set of circumstances we find ourselves reacting in a far different way than we expected.
The same should be true of your characters.