In an attempt to kickstart discussion again, this is my 'getting to know your character' guide. It is not intended to help with character creation, only with getting to know your character as a person before you get around to writing him/her.
As usual, the original is up on HR, and I have made minor edits to this version (VERY minor - removing only one small introductory paragraph).
Hopefully someone will find it useful <img src="/ubbthreads/images/graemlins/smile.gif" alt="" />
Understanding Your Character
There are a great many things that make us who we are as people, adding both depth and subtlety to our personalities. Ideally, a good character - hero or villain - is as strong a person as we ourselves, or as near as we can make them.
The following is a list of what I would consider to be the main areas to think about when getting to know your character. Not all of them will be applicable or even desirable for every character you write (References to an 'Opposite Sex' have no meaning for a robot character, for example) but running through as many of these as you think you need will help your character come alive within your mind - and, subsequently, within your story.
This list is arranged in no particular order beyond the first and (IMO) most important question.
What are your character's Motivations
This, to me, is the most vital question of all. A character whose motivations are poorly defined will always damage your story, whether it is the hero or the villain. Sometimes a character's motivations will be obvious, such as protecting those they love or fighting for country, religion or ideology, and sometimes they will be more obscure. Sometimes a hero may just be caught up in the swirl of events and must act in order to stay alive - in which survival is his motivation. Please note that 'motive' is not always the same thing as 'motivation'. A villain might give his motive as wishing to conquer the world, but his motivation would be why he wants to conquer the world - what makes him want it in the first place.
What are the character's main Virtues? What is their attitude to those virtues?
Are they particularly charitable, forgiving, merciful, peace loving, etc? Do they take pride in their virtues, or consider them a matter of course? Do they even consider them to be virtues at all? What is their attitude to those who do not share those virtues? Many people can be judgemental about those who do not share their own values, and this is a point to keep in mind.
What are the character's main Vices? What is their attitude to those vices?
The opposite of the above, but also includes physical vices such as smoking, drug taking and drinking to excess - although it is also worth noting here that all definitions of vice or virtue are culturally based, so that while abstinence from drinking (For example) may well be considered a virtue in some cultures, the ability to imbibe vast quantities of alcohol could be seen as a virtue elsewhere. Creating your own worlds allows you to define what is virtue or vice; using our world or some near approximation means you must follow the predominant cultural attitude for the part of the world and historical era your story is set in.
How Intelligent is the character?
As a general rule, the smarter a character is, the more they will think for themselves and the more swiftly they will adjust to new concepts and ideas. The higher the level of intelligence you give your character, the more work you will have to do in defining their goals, motivations and ideologies. At the highest levels, an intelligent character will create their own unique ideology that works best for them as a person. Ultra-intelligent people do not blindly follow others without question - their minds simply do not work that way. Note that thinking too much can be a double edged sword, resulting in mental or emotional harm to the thinker where someone 'less' intelligent would not suffer at all simply because they could not grasp the full consequences of their thoughts.
A character with very low intelligence will try to avoid thinking wherever possible, and not concern themselves at all with matters of ideology. They will be very slow to understand new concepts and ideas, no matter how simple, and completely unable to grasp anything too complex. Note that low intelligence does not make a character suicidal, and is no indication of combat reflexes. A character with very low intelligence may also be far more optimistic in a truly disastrous situation, as they cannot envision all the bad things that might go wrong. As a result, they may well end up saving the day where a more intelligent character would fear to act.
Fortunately, the vast majority of characters exist at neither extreme, but tend to vary between not very bright and pretty clever, all of which can easily be handled because they represent the flexibility of the human 'average' - insofar as such a thing exists. Most characters in this category will accept the ideology of the group/society they were raised in without much questioning, or change to an ideology they are more comfortable with (More likely at the upper ends of this scale than the lower).
In all cases, intelligence levels will inform the character's personality by limiting the amount of available options they might see in any given situation, but will not completely define it. Intelligence is only one of many important human traits.
What is the character's level of Education?
Education is not linked to intelligence. It simply represents the amount of actual learning/knowledge a character has obtained, either as a result of their own efforts or through conventional schooling. It does represent book learning rather than experience of life, which is a whole other area of characterisation.
As a general rule, someone with a good education will have a broader vocabulary and a lot of knowledge in one or more areas. This knowledge may or may not be useful in the story, but fortunately for the author knowledge is far easier to fake than intelligence, simply by allowing the character to do things and understand concepts related to their field of study.
How Sensitive is the character?
A highly sensitive character will be very aware of the harm they might do others through a few careless words, and very vulnerable themselves to such harm. They will often be very good at discerning when something is wrong with someone else, and their emotional intelligence will tend to be very high. Please note that a character who is very sensitive does not make a very good hero as such characters are also very prone to stress.
Does the character have any Special Skills?
This covers a very broad area, and really means anything that the character is extraordinarily good at in terms of their environment/story setting. It may include scientific genius, superlative fighting ability or just about anything else that the author can imagine. Leadership skill is always a special skill, as true leaders are very rare.
How does the character get on with Other People?
What is their attitude to the opposite sex? Their own sex? Do they like the company of others, or are they loners? How do other people react to them in private or in a crowd? Do they like people, and does it show?
This is a pretty important question to answer, as it will set the tone for all of your character's dealings with those they encounter.
Does the character have a Code Of Honour? If so, what does it entail?
This covers everything from a simple refusal to kill surrendered foes all the way up to the elaborate codes of the Knight or the Samurai. A good code of honour adds character to hero and villain alike, while a total lack of honour often makes for a totally despicable villain. Note that an honourable hero or villain is far more trustworthy than one who has no honour, simply because some kind of code means they are on some level judging their own behaviour against an expected standard.
Every character in a sense defines their own code, and it is their belief in that code and ability to stick to it that makes it such. The opinions of other characters are irrelevant. A villain who otherwise commits the most heinous crimes may allow no harm to children, for example, or may be inclined to spare the lives of those who have done him past favours - or whose parents or other relatives have.
Note that claiming to have a code is not in and of iself enough. To be truly honourable, the character must stick to it.
What do you have in common with your character? What are the points of difference?
Arguably the greatest mistake an author can make is to identify either too closely or not closely enough with their character, particularly when using the First Person perspective. This one is a real balancing act, as the character has to hold enough in common with the author that the author can like the character without completely identifying with them on every level. This is particularly a trap with characters you create yourself, and one to be avoided at all costs.
Always make sure every character has a few attitudes and personality traits you yourself do not - this keeps you and your character separate, and prevents too full an identification.
Note that characteristics the author finds admirable will do perfectly well to create a bond of affection even if the author does not possess those traits him/herself, but merely wishes s/he did.
No character should ever be used as a mouthpiece for the writer when that character's own personality is wholly unsuited for it, as this is simply bad writing.
Relationship With Family
Does your character still have living relatives? How well do they get on with them? What is/was their relationship with their parents and siblings? A reasonable understanding of family can give a real insight into a character's motivations simply because family affect our attitudes to ourselves and others in so many ways.
What are your character's Likes, Dislikes, Fears & Desires?
This is about the little things that add character. You will be surprised how much more alive a character will seem if you give them, say, a fear of spiders or a love of pizza. Such minor traits add a sense of realness to your character far more than any of the big things, strange as it sounds.
How do they view their powers/abilities?
Every hero or villain has a handy set of skills or abilities that lifts them far above the level of normal people in whatever it is they are doing. Sometimes they start as novices and have to learn those skills and sometimes they begin your story with them, but sooner or later your character will be experienced and capable, and you will have to confront this question.
Is your character happy with their skills? Do they believe they are gifted or burdened by them? Do they thank (Or blame) their deity for them? Do they use their abilities with automatic reflex and great control, or do they have to think about them? What is their relationship with their abilities?
Does your character have any Race or Class Prejudices?
Hating, despising or looking down upon the rich, the poor or the middle classes simply because they exist is class prejudice. Hating, despising or looking down upon any race or ethnicity as inferior or worthy only of extermination is racial prejudice. Whether it is reasoning or unreasoning, the degree of acceptability for such traits very much depends on your story setting and the reasons for it.
Obviously a British character who hates, say, Polish people is not likely to make for a very noble hero in a story set in modern times on our own world, but in a fantasy setting Humans hating Goblins or Elves hating Dwarves is often considered acceptable and almost never viewed as the racism it so obviously is.
If your story features two (Or more) countries that are bitterly at war, a degree of racism between those countries is almost inevitable, so becomes far more acceptable in your story.
When dealing with either of these cases, an author must be very careful, as nothing is more likely to alienate your readership than getting this one wrong.
Long list, huh? There are plenty more questions you could doubtless put to your characters as no list will ever be complete, but I think this covers all the main bases. After this, you really should know your character well enough to start them off on those first troublesome steps to adventure.