From Women Writers, Women’s Books:
Most fiction readers fall in love with a book because of the characters. I’m no exception. As a person who reads an average of seventy-five books per year, it’s my experience that characters are the most important element in a story. Without believable characters, nothing else holds together.
Think of Gollum, for instance. There aren’t many of us who don’t immediately picture a wizened old man with a few wispy strands of hair on his head, wearing a loincloth, rubbing his hands together, and whispering, “My Precious.” When it comes to character development, JRR Tolkien had the Midas touch.
There are primary characters (main characters), secondary characters (characters who get a decent amount of page time but aren’t the main characters), and peripheral characters (mail carrier, doctor, neighbor). All three types of characters are vital because it lends diversity and contrast to the storyline. And with that, we get non-plot-specific conflict.
Regarding diversity, the Sean McPherson novels take place at a fictional writing retreat in the Pacific Northwest called Pines & Quill. One of the four writer-in-residence cottages is wheelchair-friendly. One way I take care not to offend a sometimes stereotyped demographic—differently abled people—is to use a sensitivity reader to ensure that I write accurately on behalf of those characters.
Writers, myself included, jump through many hoops when creating well-rounded, believable characters. For instance, nailing a character’s appearance is vital. Once I establish what they look like in my mind’s eye, I transfer that idea to a “character template” that I developed. I use that tool to play God and fully flesh them out as human beings—people readers relate with and want to learn more about.
I note physical characteristics such as height, weight, hair color, and eye color in my character template. Then comes their nationality. For example, in the Sean McPherson novels, the protagonist is Irish.
The character template is where I also note details about their childhood (good or bad), their parents (or whoever raised them), their siblings, and their childhood friends. I also note if they have any allergies. Why? As a suspense/thriller writer, I might be able to use this to their disadvantage.
As an author creates characters, it’s essential to ask if they’ve survived trauma, either physical or emotional. For example, are they a survivor of cancer, rape, domestic violence? Do they have PTSD—Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Do they suffer from depression, an eating disorder, or anxiety? If yes, how does their experience factor into their current life? Realism adds to the storyline making it much more convincing because readers can relate.
Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books