The level of detail that goes into describing your character before they even enter the story is going to be different for everyone. Some people like to just have a rough description while others want to have every last detail written out. Regardless of where your preference lies, it is important to track information about your character(s).
For one, you want to make sure the character is consistent throughout the story. They shouldn’t start off as a 5’8 blonde, become a 6’2 brunette in the middle, and end as a 5’1 redhead. Unless, of course, part of the story is about these strange physical changes that the character is undergoing.
Personally, I like to sketch/draw out a rough likeness of my character. I say ‘rough’ because I’m not the best artist, but that’s not the point. The point is that it helps me get a handle on the physical characteristics of my character. Following the quick sketch, I come up with a name. If it’s not a completely made-up name, I like to use a baby name site to pick something with a meaning relevant to how I view the character. For example, my Legend’s Legacy book/series stars Atalanta (unswaying) and Damien (to tame or subdue), with their lovely companion Calista (beautiful) in the first book, and Hazina (good) having a bit part in the first book and replacing Calista in the second.
Clearly each name has an obvious meaning to it. Atalanta won’t change, Damien is trying to change her, Calista is the eye candy, and Hazina is a good-guy. But my thought process goes deeper than that (and I would recommend if you’re picking names based on meanings yours should too). For me, Atalanta herself isn’t unswaying or unchanging. It is the stubborn nature of Fate and the life thrust upon her that is ‘unswaying’; her mother wanted her to follow in the family’s footsteps without question or hesitation.
Damien, on the other hand, starts out very much wanting to subdue (well, kill) Atalanta. But as the story/stories progress, it becomes his upbringing that he needs to tame. I liked that his name meaning used those two words because while they can mean the same thing, they can also mean different things. And I think that nicely reflects the progression I intend for him.
Calista’s name was the “least” thought out. I picked it because it means beautiful and she is gorgeous. Of course, Calista isn’t her real name. She picked it for the same reason I did 😉 (I do know what her real name is, but that is a spoiler)
Hazina is a similarly simple pick. She first appears opposite a character whose name means ‘trouble’. She is the good character opposite the bad. She didn’t even exist in my first draft of Legend’s Legacy. As I did my re-write though I wanted a character other than Damien and Atalanta to oppose this bad guy. Thus Hazina was born. Originally I didn’t intend for her to have more than a bit part in the first book, but I liked her and began to think of ways to expand her character. NowI fully intend for her to struggle with the black-and-white nature of a good/evil worldview. As well as to struggle with her own morality.
As you can see, a lot of how I plan out my characters is based on their physical appearance and how their name relates to who they are as a person. Did you notice how by making the choice about what their name means and how that affects them I also hinted at histories, motivations, legacies, and beliefs? For me, those ‘hints’ are all I need to write down. I can take a look at one and be like “ah, yes! This hint means that…” Other people might need to actually write out what each ‘hint’ is referring to.
One thing I did for Legend’s Legacy that I rarely do is create a genealogy/family tree. I’d link it, but it contains some spoilers because it goes past Atalanta and Damien by a couple generations. When I am/you’re dealing with complex family relationships, a family tree can be helpful. Looking at the connecting lines and how that relates to everyone else can help focus on the less tangible connections between families.
For those interested, here is a character sketch template. The font used in the header is called Galeforce. I think it’s pretty, but you can certainly change it to anything you want (or just delete it). Note that I didn’t use tables when creating the template, so it works best if you print it off. If you want to type up your character sketch, here is one that uses text boxes. If you save it as a dotx file (rather than a docx) it becomes an actual word template. (Which means that anytime you double click on it, it opens a new document based on that template. No having to worry about ‘save as’ versus ‘save’ to keep the original blank)
Take a look at a sample character sketch for Atalanta. I tried to keep any major spoilers out of it. Additionally, the lovely close-up image was not drawn by me. That was drawn by Scott Lewis, but it embodies how I envisioned Atalanta’s hair without the handerkerchief around it. The really sketchy part I made on my computer because I was feeling lazy and didn’t want to do any scanning.