One of the hardest things for a beginner writer is creating believable characters. To journey from the figment of our imagination to fleshed out character capable of standing on his or her own, can be difficult.
We all conceptualise our role as authors in different ways. Some of us feel that the characters we create are independent beings capable of disobedience, competition, refusal and even disdain for their creator (us!). Some of us see the characters as puppets who only do what we tell them to. And some of us are somewhere in between.
In my interpretation, all these are symptoms of author struggle - on one hand we have passivity and avoidance of responsibility, on the other - issues with being too controlling.
Maybe that's why a new writer struggles in bewilderment, trying to create something personal and independent at the same time, such as a character who will go on to interact with others thus giving rise to a compelling story. Because, like many have already pointed out, there's no story without characters.
To that end, I wanted to share my template which I refer to as "Character sheet". I use it for all my major characters, but sometimes I also “run” my minor ones through the categories. I find it helps all of them come to life, so to speak.
This information goes together with a folder on my computer titled "character in pictures". In it, I place pictures and visual details which remind me of the character in some way. I find this kind of visual reference, a scrapbook of sorts, incredibly helpful.
But my true thoughts about who the character is, are recorded in the Character sheet.
Once I compose the character sheet, I find that I don't have to refer to it often. But the process of compiling the character sheet in the first place, making decisions that have to be made in advance, helps me create unique and believable characters.
I use software indigenous to my computer, which allows me to collapse the headings, making all this information easily accessible in one file. This makes these sheets really convenient and easy to use.
TYPICAL CHARACTER SHEET
Anything name related goes in here. Family crests and family name history, first name meanings, different names under consideration and anything else name-related.
What role in the book this character plays? A heroine? A villain? An ally or antagonist?
A short summary of exactly what kind of role they are playing.
example: Powerful but reluctant to impose her will on others. Stranger to power, unwilling leader. Competent and versatile - easily fits in. Underestimate her at your peril.
Any real people or fictional characters that inspired you or that your character reminds of.
This is particularly helpful in devising a unique dialogue voice for your character.
Qualities, emotions, motivations
This is an extremely important category because this is where you build the psychological profile of your character.
Is she proud, youthful, secretive, flippant, superficial, angry, maternal, talented singer, shrewd, empathic, competitive etc etc. There are literally millions of qualities and character traits to choose from, the difficulty is matching them appropriately to describe a realistic person.
Working it through in this way can help correct inconsistencies and imagine motivations.
In my opinion, character flaws are even more interesting than qualities. You can have lots of fun in this section because you can dose the disagreeable aspects of your character according to their role, but you can vary aspects you will emphasise. This helps make conflicts diverse and original and characters multidimensional.
Even most self-assured heroes, deep down, have insecurities.
example: Does she feel like she doesn’t belong, or that she is not good enough, maybe she’s insecure about her looks or sexual performance, maybe she thinks her friends are too nice to tell her the truth (that her art sucks or that she is a lousy mother)?
This is an interesting one. It can be rather practical, the character has been misinformed or lied to and is labouring under a misapprehension. But also, you can make it all about defense mechanisms especially denial, projection.
For example, the hero might have mistaken another woman for his wife and now he is planning revenge thinking that she has cheated. But also, it can be more psychological than that such as the villain thinking he is helping his people by making the decisions for them, whilst running a dictatorship and deluding himself about his own corruption.
Guilt or trauma form the past
This one is self-explanatory. Its always helpful to be a bit subtle here, too much guilt and the character will appear as if they have a huge chip on their shoulder, but a carefully dosed tragedy in the past can give any character an unexpected twist.
Fear of future
This is a different version of “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” Only, this is all those things the character is aware of, is worried about, but often it is the unknown ironies of fate that are more compelling within the story. But this is the source of the character’s neurosis, a manifestation of their insecurities.
for example: the heroine might be scared of growing old, becoming poor, being discovered for who she really is etc.
These are useful to know because they most often bring villains and heroes down.
for example: does the hero have weakness for pretty girls, alcohol, money, flattery, piousness, power? People who want to manipulate them will invariably play on their weaknesses to achieve their goals.
These are the little idiosyncrasies that many popular characters have.
Think Hercule Poirot and his particular attention to his perfectly groomed mustache which complements his obsessive and analytical mind.
Cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, junk food, gambling or any illegal activities the character enjoys and feels like he can’t do without.
This is important because by sacrificing something, a relationship, an ambition, a fear, even possessions can be sacrificed in order for the character to mature, to become a better person, to progress through the character arc.
The reader can feel a twinge of compassion for even the most hateful villain if they see him sacrifice something really important to him.
I like to identify archetypes in my characters, but if you are unfamiliar with this technique, I recommend The Writer’s Journey by C. Vogler
This is particularly useful in devising characters who are tormented or appear as if their actions and words are in conflict.
for example: when someone claims to be nice and understanding but they bully and intimidate with a smile on their face and without ever raising the voice. This usually happens when anger or animosity go unacknowledged by the character themselves, rather than just pretending or being bitchy.
Anything that causes problems for the character, especially in terms of communication and relationships.
for example: stubbornness, laziness, dishonesty, unfaithfulness.
Who am I and what do I do?
This concerns characters baseline identity, before they embark on an adventure that is the story.
for example: I am a teenager, single child, I go to school, party with my friends on weekends, and I sing in a choir.
What do I want?
What is the character’s goal in the story?
example: I want to sing in a band
What is the worst thing that could happen to me?
This is really useful because these “worst case scenarios” make for wonderful plot twists and turns.
example: I can lose my singing voice before the big concert.
Character Summary Sheet
This is the typical basic character sheet used for role playing or by visual artists. I find that it helps with making choices regarding more superficial characteristics such as dress style, social status, things like that.
Skin Issues (tattoos, birthmarks etc):
Home Life/Family type:
Country/Land of Origin:
Place in Time:
Name of Favorite Pet:
Some ideas for character arc
Here, you can jot down some plot elements, conflicts and their resolutions that make sense with regards to this particular character.
for example: after losing her voice, the heroine falls into depths of depression. She can’t believe her luck, considers her life over. She plummets deep into self destructive lifestyle (smoking, alcohol, parties). But the loss of her voice in fact foreshadowed a more serious health problem - severe asthma - which is only made worse by the bad lifestyle choices. After a sudden and severe asthma attack, the heroine ends up fighting for her life in the hospital, promising herself to sort out her life if she manages to stay alive. Her misfortune now seems like a dream come true compared to the awful circumstance she found herself in. After many trials and tribulations, she learns to appreciate small things in life, learns to be modest and grateful. She sorts her life out and ends up getting back her singing voice, which is now even better than before.
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