I have spent the last week or two diving deep into some of the characters in my fiction series I am currently working on. I really wanted to know the characters better because it helps me keep them consistent as they go scene to scene, week to week in the story. Also, it helps keep them high quality instead of cardboard cutouts or simple clichés.
Before we begin, let me make a few disclaimers. One, I am not a psych major or trained in psychology. Two, when I did this study, it took a LONG TIME. Do not expect to be able to finish this in one hour or one day. Take at least a few days to mull over these steps and slowly write them out. You may find this annoying or frustrating. But think about it, did you know your friend in depth after one day of interacting? What about your SO?
To begin, if I were instructing myself, I would start by writing down everything you know about the character already. You have to think about EVERYTHING. Why they did a certain action or behave in a certain way? What is their default personality or demeanor? How do they dress? What do they look like? What are their goals? What is their strengths and weaknesses?
If this is too daunting, you can start by just making a list of key scenes and quotes from the character from the story so far. You can then read back the quotes to yourself, a kind of Cliffnotes version of your character. You can also fill out a question and answer sheet to get basic info too, though this only helps with gathering basic info, not in depth info. I like to find one or two songs IRL that the character would love or songs that best represent the character’s personality and note that.
My experience of doing this psych study for characters basically ended up translating to thinking and documenting every single thing I knew about the character. I couldn’t treat the character like a character anymore, I had to think for a long time and think of the character similar to a real person. Once you think of the character seriously, you go beyond their simple traits and think about his or her past, present, future, desires, how they have evolved, etc.
Hopefully you find out that your character has certain core themes or traits that more or less guide them throughout the story. This is also the time where you can describe his or her personality. It’s not like the character is going to have every emotion under the sun or want to work every job in the world. You may find your character focuses on things like: Being a hero, seeking treasure, being greedy, being naive, being smart, etc. This is a good opportunity to bring up dialogue quotes or specific scenes that highlight why they fit with a certain theme or trait.
Once you lay out basic info about your character and 4 or so basic themes that define the character, you can go a step deeper and think about times when they contradict their basic theme and why. You can also note their inner thoughts too, since they may be shy about something and hide it from other characters in the story. This takes your basic themes and really views them with a full, complete perspective. Yeah someone’s a hero. But are they REALLY a hero, ALL the time? Why is the character a hero? What does the character THINK about being a hero?
You can also compare and contrast the characters from each other, noting how Character A contrasts Character B, or how A is actually similar to B in some ways.
Once you have this huge mass of info, you can then begin to pick at your data and condense it into summaries, and hopefully even find patterns to identify traits in your character. For example, if your character likes eating ice cream because he had it 3 times in the book so far, you can add that to his personality section. Basically you can start to sort all your info into subcategories instead of one huge chunk of text all about the character.
Once you squeeze down the info and remove anything repetitive or redundant, you can start to form a general summary of the character, condensing what may be 5 paragraphs or info or more into a 1 paragraph summary or conclusion on the character.
If you want to go even further, you can take all your in depth info about your character and describe the surface level impression of your character, the in depth description of the character and what the character (probably) thinks about him or herself.
You should eventually end up with a document that explores your character in multiple layers and perspectives. Perspectives like basic first impression, internal thoughts, who they are deep down, what they look like, what the character thinks about other characters, his or her past, his or her present and his or her possible future. You understand how they have behaved so far in the story, what they may do in the future, and WHY they want to do it based on their basic themes, traits, past or other reasons.
You can describe the character in one sentence, one paragraph, or several paragraphs—from multiple perspectives. You know your character more fully because you have thought about him or her from nearly every angle.