Start with a character archetype
Character archetypes are universal personas that we subconsciously recognise when we see them. They recur across literature and mythology and their actions and behaviours are laden with meaning and associations. A great example is the Orphan—Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker and Simba from the Lion King are all underpinned by this same prototype character. It's also common to find both layered archetypes (e.g. Sméagol from The Lord of The Rings - a combination of the Trickster & Shadow) and even characters that transform from one into another over time. The evolution of Sarah Connor in Terminator, from Waif to Crusader, is a great example here (Read more about character archetypes for your story).
- Start by adding your plot outline to an empty Board.
- Decide which character archetypes are evoked.
- Map out the roles that your character archetypes play by connecting Boards with Lines.
- Add in Notes to explain the major plot points.
- Don't forget, you can make Notes transparent to keep things tidy.
Add specific characteristics
Once you've defined an initial archetype, you can begin to shape the character and make them original. You should consider the emotional connection between your audience and your character, and work towards the desired outcome. You may find that switching the age and gender of a character can lead to very different responses from an audience.
- Brainstorm your character's core traits using Notes and Lines inside a Board.
- Try to extend your character's traits into behaviours and actions. If a character is brave, what could their hobby be?
Build the backstory
Your character's backstory describes the journey they have taken up to this point. It allows you to explore their fears, weaknesses and motivations and to define their purpose. You can explain the character's methods and evaluations—why they act the way that they do, the choices they make, and how it drives the individual forward. Are they making progress towards their goal, or making things worse? To really round-out the character, give them a personality that stretches beyond the story itself. Some aspects of their personality will not make it into the story, but will help to inform the decisions that they make.
- Create a new Board titled 'Character Profile' or similar.
- Duplicate your brainstorm Notes by selecting them with your cursor, copy the selection (CMD+C) and paste them (CMD+V) into your new Board.
- Group their personality traits, together inside a Column.
- List your character's main goals that drive the story.
- Using the goals and traits you've developed, write a detailed backstory for your character.
Don't forget to give them quirks, faults and flaws.
The character should come from an authentic place. That means that the character probably has some contradictions that make them a little out of the ordinary. If a character is too simplistic, it can feel cliched. Character flaws such as overconfidence, impatience or recklessness can add new dimensions to a hero character and make them seem more relatable.
- Create a new Column to document your character's flaws.
- Add these flaws to your backstory to make the character more relatable.
Add subtle touches
Matching a character's traits to our perception of objects or symbols is useful for defining characters and foreshadowing their behaviour. Perhaps your character is a wise old man that lives near the sea, symbolising timelessness and eternity. Or your villain may be decked out in black armour, symbolic of power, doom and darkness. You should take the time to moodboard your character's look. (Read more about how to moodboard)
- Create a new board to moodboard different looks for your character.
- Drag the image into your character profile board.
It's important not fall into the trap of giving just one character too much responsibility for the dramatic functions of your story. It's better to create additional characters that compliment and contrast the traits of your protagonist. You can repeat the above process to develop a whole cast of characters that bring your story to life.