Once a writer has a theme, that ideal or two they want to explore such as belief in god versus belief in justice, and a plausible story line, one general enough not to seemed forced, a writer must set out to create a number of characters. It is literally an act of creation for you, the writer, are god. A great deal of thought must go into this creativeness of yours. The main character, the hero, and he is your hero, not a knight in shining armor, must stand out from the crowd. He does not need to be the biggest or fastest, he just needs to exhibit those qualities needed to complete your story. He stands out because he is a leader, someone who understands what needs to be done. He is above average, plain and simple. And his protagonist must be his equal, otherwise your hero looks like a bully. I am not talking about physical size but about ability. In fact, the villain can be a little smarter or a little larger or a little whatever better than the hero, it’s your story and you get to decide what luck and nature have to do with the outcome. So plan your characters accordingly, your story must be told by the right character mix.
If the story is a love story then depending on how you want to proceed, you need that triangle of characters. Why? Because love does not happen in a vacuum, and if love is to be wooed we must have some competition. You will also need some friends for each of the triangle characters, usually two or three close friends but one will do in a pinch. Then there are the other acquaintances of the triple, so plan accordingly. As usual, some of these people may be workmates. Some may be next door neighbors. Remember, it is your setting. Are we in the rural country or the urban slums? Your theme will determine who is best suited to tell your story and where it is best acted. So get out your notebook or five by eight index card (I like the 5 by 8 cards because I can lay out on one card the main characters needed) and write hero, villain, love interest, siren 1, siren 2, friend 1, friend 2, henchman 1, henchman 2, and so forth. You are populating your world and these people will help you with the details for this stage.
Now that we have an initial cast, we can give them names. The name is important because if you call your hero Juwan, the reader would expect him to be black, not white. That doesn’t mean he can’t be white, but there better be a good reason for that name. So do a little research. Very few women who were born twenty years ago are likely to be named Mary. On the other hand, rather than using the more common names, have a couple of characters standout with the less common names can make your story more interesting. Again, we are looking to guide our actors to having appropriate characters. We don’t want the generic types, we want people who fit our conception of the story we want to tell. Think about your own childhood or adulthood, who are your friends. What about people you know in church or work or other organizations, who are their friends? It’s about personality. When I was a teenager the family next door loved flying model airplanes. They built them from kits and fooled around with the motors and then flew them on weekends. About half of their friends were model airplane enthusiasts. Look for patterns in these friendships.
Time to start character development. First the names, then the ages, then the place of birth. Who are their parents and what do their parents do? It doesn’t matter if we, the readers never have this information, it matters only that you have given them the appropriate background. You will need much more than physical descriptions. So write that long biography, several pages worth. Give them a history of growing up, going to school. What were their favorite toys over the years, what school subjects did they like and hate most? Who were their friends and how many? What kind of interaction did they have with extended family? Were they brought up in religious families? What sports did they play and what sports do the now follow? Where did they go to high school? Did they go to college, and if so, where and what was they major? did they graduate, and if so, what work did they pursue? Did they ever serve in the military or peace corp? Have they suffered unemployment for any significant length of time? Where they ever on welfare of any kind? what were their first jobs? Did they have part time jobs as kids such as paper boy or dog washer? As a kid I had a small paper route and mowed lawns. What does that say about me? On the other hand some of the boys pursued sports and so they spend a great deal of their time training and playing those sports. What does that say about them? And those who did nothing special but just hang around and get into trouble, what does that say about them? At some point you may want to flashback to the past of a character so as to show some reason for his or her motivation right now.
Yeah, this is a lot of writing but it has a purpose. It is also a requirement of your work if you want to write well. Cardboard characters don’t tell or show much of a story. By writing these biographies you show an interest in your characters, you care whether they live or die. Never kill a character carelessly. If I need throwaways, I do a paragraph about who they are. If my theme is about death and its acceptance by one of the main characters then I will do that death with the respect it deserves. And don’t kill off villains and henchmen because the wages of sin are death. Let them escape of catch one of two and put them in jail, but don’t go old fashioned morality play on us. Few villains ever get their just deserts.
Finally, keep a binder with the pages of the biographies your write. You may want to create characters similar to the ones you have used or put them in future writings. And remember that if you are doing short stories, you still need to write bios of your characters. You just don’t need to get quite as involved unless you are doing a series of tales like Sherlock Homes.