Fiction only works when you create characters that feel real to your reader. Even if you are writing science-fiction full of aliens the aliens need to have traits that your reader can understand -- they need to be human enough to be fathomable. Readers don't have to like your characters, they don't have to empathise with them, but they have to believe in them – so building your major characters is the most important thing you will do in creating a story.

Using real people as your character base

Many people start by basing their characters on themselves, and on people they know. Now, obviously, this is very sound in that the people we deal with every day, are - by definition – real, living, breathing beings. However, it is fraught with risk.

First of all, you run the risk of offending your friends. By pointing out their peculiarities, you may hurt or upset them, and by omitting elements of their character you may make them appear less rounded in fiction than they are in life.

Secondly, you run the risk of appearing uncreative – even if the situation you put your characters in is one that their pattern has never encountered, if your readers know the same people you do (and you can bet that some will, because everyone tends to buy a book if a friend has written it) then when they recognise your characters they will assume that you are simply describing real events – and that rumour will soon get round.

Thirdly, you run the risk of not being thorough. Because you know your spouse, child or best friend so well, there are things that you would never think to say about them, because you assume other people have the same unconscious knowledge that you do – this results in characters that are incomprehensible, because vital elements of their personality are missing – and the same thing may happen if you omit elements deliberately for reasons of disguise or privacy.

Creating a character entirely from your imagination

This is, to be frank, almost impossible. Firstly, it's incredibly hard work – you need to create a complete human being with quirks and frailties, talents and motivations. If you don't, what you get is a hollow, lifeless vehicle for either your own opinions and ideologies, or for those your plot needs right now, and stereotypes will start to rear their ugly heads.

So, what do you do?

The answer is, of course, to combine the two. Every encounter you have with another person is grist for your mill. Become a people-watcher – notice idiosyncrasies you can build into your people. Verbal tics, like people (me, for example) who say "actually" a lot; people who punctuate their sentences with "Y'know" or "like"; those who say "right" instead of "yes". Look for features that stand out – a pattern of freckles, a particularly striking hairstyle, or a quirky way of dressing. Build from these features : why does the woman wear a flowing cape instead of a coat? Why does the man resolutely grow a pony-tail that hangs below his bald spot? What prompted that tattoo of Woodstock on the girl's shoulder? Unless you have a superb memory, carry a notebook. Don't sit there writing reams, or people will start to look at you askance, but jot down single sentences that will call the things you've noticed back to your mind later.

Get to know your character inside out

Before you can make a character really believable, you have to know them yourself. They have to exist for you as complete people, and you have to have as much information about them as you do about yourself. It doesn't matter that you may never tell your reader any of these facts -- you still have to know.

You have to know what they look like – down to the mole at the base of their spine that only their intimates will ever see.

You have to know their background – where do they come from, and what were the experiences that shaped them to make them the person they are now?

Your have to know their mind – what are their hopes and fears, their phobias and talents, their inhibitions and enthusiasms?

So, how do you do this?

Start with a name. Christian name first, then surname. Again, even if you intend to leave them nameless, they should have a name for you – you can't get to know someone without this most basic handle.

Deciding the name will often tell you a lot about the person. While many names carry on from generation to generation, a Hilda or an Edward is likely to be older than River or Sky who in turn will probably be older than Britney or DeeJay. Belinda will probably be from a wealthier family than Kylie, and Jim is, in general, more likely to drive a truck than Nicholas.

Deal with the physical – make a list:

  • How tall are they?
  • How old, precisely?
  • What colour is their hair – and is it natural?
  • Eyes – colour, size, sunken, protuberant, heavy lidded?
  • Skin colour?
  • What do they like to wear?
  • Picture them walking down a street – how do they move?
  • Give them an outstanding feature – something that will always identify them: a birthmark, a scar, big ears, a big nose or small feet – the first thing somebody would notice when they saw them.
  • Something they would never go out without – the more unusual you make this, the more your character will take shape. Do they always have a leatherman? Do they carry a snapshot of an old lover? Would they rather be caught dead than not have a clean handkerchief in their bag?

When you know all this, write down a brief word sketch of no more than three lines which builds a recognisable picture, without drowning your reader in detail. Perhaps you will add more as the story goes on, perhaps not, but these should be the key features that your reader must see to distinguish the character from the mass of humanity. Leave some gaps for the reader to fill in, but know that if you were asked, you'd be able to answer.

Try hard to avoid stereotypes. If you must have a tall, slender, blue-eyed blonde, give her heavy eyebrows, or flat feet and a clumsy walk.

Now their background:

  • Where did they grow up – a trailer park, a mansion in Beverly Hills?
  • Where do they live now?
  • How do they vote, or don't they bother (if they are old enough)?
  • How many siblings do they have – any older, any younger?
  • Are their parents still alive?
  • What do/did their parents do?
  • Where did they go to school, and what was their favourite subject?
  • Who was their best friend, and have they kept in touch?
  • Who was their favourite relation, and why?
  • Do they/did they get on with their parents?
  • What is their favourite food, and what would they never eat for all the tea in China?
  • Favourite drink?
  • Favourite colour?
  • Regional accent?
  • What do they do for a living – and what is their dream job?
  • Do they have a partner, and if so, how did they meet?
  • What is the closest they have ever come to dying?
  • How do they spend their weekends?
  • What are their tastes – and would they be different if they had unlimited money to spend?

Now the deeper personality -- list:

  • A childhood accident which has left them with a fear.
  • Their pet hate.
  • Something they do really well.
  • Something they do really badly.
  • Something in their past they wish they hadn't done – and why.
  • A recurring nightmare.
  • A fantasy
  • The one thing they would change about themselves, if they could.
  • The worst and best moment of their life so far.
  • How would they react if a stranger offered them a lift?
  • How would they react if they saw a child, crying and alone?
  • How would they react if they found a purse full of large denomination notes?

Now, finally for the getting to know you stage, think about introducing your character to someone you know at a party – what single sentence would you use to tell someone about them?

Once you know your character, what do you do with them?

Most of this information you will never tell your reader – you'll only uncover the parts of the character that are vital to the progress of the story. However, knowing it is essential for you, because it allows you to paint a consistent and believable picture of how your character would react when they encounter the situations they will deal with in your plot. It may seem like overkill, but you will find that once you have carried out the exercise two or three times it will become second nature to you to ask these kind of questions about everyone you write.

Once you have all the information, you will manipulate it to evoke the reaction to the character you want from your reader:

For instance, take one of your character's features:

If you want your reader to like them, you might say they have "an aquiline, patrician nose" If you want to make them a villain perhaps you'll describe it as "long, sharp and intrusive" If you want to present them in a neutral light "her nose was long and pointed"

You will unfold your character gradually through what they say, what they do, and how they respond to each of the events that happen they travel through the journey you have created from them.

Show your character's reactions, feelings and emotions to your reader, don't tell them – it's much more effective to say "Sarah gently brushed the hair that had fallen forward off of David's forehead" than "Sarah was overcome with tenderness" or to have your character say "I could sleep for a week" rather than "Harold was completely exhausted". As your reader sees your character's behaviours and hears their voice, they will come to understand them.

Keep in mind what you know about your character as you write, and keep checking back – would someone from this background really act like this in this situation? As long as your answer is "yes", you have a character who will hold your reader's interest; if the answer is "no" you're running into territory where you will lose them, and if it's "don't know" – go back and find out.