Not sure how much brainstorming needs to go into each character? You’re not alone.
It’s a struggle for many, and unfortunately, there’s no single “right” answer. It really depends on the character’s importance in the story, their function or role, and the writer’s own process.
A rule of thumb might be to dig as deep as you need to in order to understand what is motivating them in the story. But honestly, what does that look like? And that might not help Pantsers who do most of their character building during the discovery draft.
Characters are the heart of a story, and to build one that readers won’t forget, you need to dig deep.
When we built the Character Builder at One Stop for Writers, we wanted to give writers a way to uncover their character’s deeper layers like never before, getting to the root causes of their personal pain, fears, insecurities, and unmet needs. These personal details don’t just humanize the character, they provide a road map of their motivation in the story. Their goal becomes their “missing piece,” and to gain it, they will have to move past the fears and flaws that hold them back. Or should you decide the character will fail, this tool’s Character Arc Blueprint can plot that out too.
The Character Builder helps you plan every detail step by step, prompting you with information as you go. But what if the character you’re brainstorming isn’t the protagonist? What if they have a supporting role and no arc in the story–how detailed do they need to be?
Again it depends…but never fear! We created a Role Guide that looks at each character’s relationship with the protagonist, and based on that, provides guidelines on what sort of detailed planning may be needed.
Below is a shortened version of One Stop for Writers’ role guide to help you identify what information to brainstorm for each character type. (I’ll look at supporting characters now and tackle bigger ones like the Protagonist and Love Interest in another post.)
A sidekick is a character who is pulling for the protagonist, helping them in some way, while also acting as a contrast of some kind (a foil) that highlights the protagonists’ own qualities. They may have different strengths, skills, education, ideas, or a worldview, but in some meaningful way the sidekick completely aligns with the main character, making them a natural companion.
This alignment is what you need to uncover. If the two have a shared history, that part of the backstory should be explored. If they have the same goal but want it for different reasons, or they have values that align, know what that looks like.
With the sidekick, spend time developing their personality and behavior. This character usually has something “extra special” about them that makes them memorable to readers. Also consider their function as a foil, and what makes them different than the hero or heroine. Do they challenge the protagonist’s beliefs in some way? Is there’s a lesson hidden in the sidekick’s attitude or traits that will help the protagonist grow? If so, know what this is. Of course you’ll also need to know their appearance, and if they have valuable skills, hobbies, or an occupation that will benefit the protagonist in some way, plan that too.
Sidekicks can have their own goals that exist as subplots and if so, a higher level of planning may be needed to fully understand their motivations in the story, as this is what gives them depth. In some cases they may be flat characters who don’t really change, but I urge you to give them substance rather than simply make them a vehicle for comic relief or someone for the protagonist to talk to during the journey. Characters close to the protagonist should never feel hollow.
This character’s main function is friendship—to support the protagonist and be the voice of reason (or their conscience). They may lightly steer them regardless of whether the main character wants guidance or not. With a friend, the protagonist can be more open and vulnerable, so answer this question in the planning stage: Why is the protagonist this person’s friend?
A friend may not have a huge role in the story, but they will have commonalities with the protagonist (likes, dislikes, beliefs, worldviews, etc.), that explain why they are friends. If they have a shared history (perhaps they are school buddies, or met in Alcoholics Anonymous), focus on backstory that brought them together, and any shared experiences that explain why the friend looks out for the protagonist. For example, if the friend witnessed past train wreck relationships where the main character was with narcissistic women, he would try to steer the protagonist away from choosing another one as a love interest.
Personality is another area to plan, especially positive traits. Readers should be able to easily see why they are liked by the protagonist.
This character has a pivotal role: to teach or advise the character in a time of need or to offer periodic help over the course of the story. The biggest thing to uncover about this character is WHY. Why does the mentor care enough to help the protagonist? The answer to this question will dictate what sort of planning is necessary.
If they share history or have similar backgrounds, dig into that. If the protagonist’s goal aligns with the mentor’s in some way (a common enemy, righting a past wrong, fulfilling the mentor’s missing need, etc.), think about why this is. The mentor’s motivation needs to be credible, especially if they are enduring hardship or sticking their neck out to help the protagonist (and this is often the case).
While you should know their personality, it is their skills or knowledge that will be more important as this is what will help the protagonist.
Another question to answer is why the mentor disengages at some point and the protagonist forges ahead alone. Know the why: are they forced to step back (due to age, a handicap, responsibilities, or story circumstances)? Do they choose to because of a danger or threat? This will need to be revealed in the story, so know why.
The Minor Character
Minor characters require the least development of all. Focus on key personality points, behaviors, occupation, or skills that further the plot, and don’t worry about the rest. Often minor characters will have a quirk to make them more interesting. If you go this route, choose one that’s meaningful rather than random. Their appearance doesn’t need much planning; focus on a mannerism or how they can move or speak in a way that helps to characterize them so readers can imagine what they look like.
Other Story Players
Occasionally you will have a character who cannot be easily defined by the usual roles. This might be a supernatural force, a deity who has influence over the world, or even an unreliable narrator overseeing the story. Whatever this “other” is, think about their impact on the story, connection to any main cast members, and the motivation behind their actions. This information will help you narrow down what needs to be planned because your goal here is to fully understand these connections.
Uncovering how each character relates to the main cast members is the key.
Even if you don’t use the Character Builder, understanding roles better will help you unearth specific details that will give your secondary characters (and therefore their relationships with the protagonist or other main characters) greater depth.
If you’d like to check out the Character Builder for yourself, why not give the 2-week free trial a spin?
Here’s a character profile we built with this tool.