Characters are the foundation of every story. So much of writing in every genre depends on character development. Just as a good reporter researches those they will interview to gain insight and help them ask better questions, writers must get to know their characters intimately. Without getting to know them as well as we can, our characters may come off flat, one-dimensional, unbelievable.
Three ways I use to get to know my characters well are: 1. Paragraph of introduction; 2. Pre-writing worksheet; and 3. Post-writing worksheet. Let’s look at each of these.
1. Write a paragraph of introduction about your character.
This is a bird’s eye view of your character, a quick character sketch. You aren’t diving very deep here. Describe them as though you are introducing them to someone. Think about these things:
-eye color (glasses)
-complexion, size, age, gender
This exercise might look something like this:
David is five feet, six inches tall, with black hair. His brown eyes are set deeply into his tanned skin. Twenty-three years old, David enjoys trail running, which he writes about for Run For It magazine, from his home in Cleary, Arizona. He speaks with a heavy accent, having been born and raised in The Bronx by his Italian-born parents.
If David is a main character, he would probably be introduced more creatively, while also introducing the story, in the first portion of writing. Now that I have a mental picture, I want to get to a point where I can think of him as a real person. I then turn to the worksheet.
2. Pre-writing Worksheet
I like to get to know my main characters quite intimately before I get very far into my story, sometimes before I even begin writing. Many templates can be found online with a simple search of the words “character development.” (I like the one at Aether’s Travel Blog and Reedsy.)
I have used many of these templates in the past, finally developing one of my own, which I am constantly tweaking. In addition to the list in #1 above, which I go more in depth on, I add things like:
-accomplishments (career, hobbies, relationships both personal and professional)
-where do they live (& where were they born)
-personality traits (moody, calm, quiet, outspoken, passive, introspective, etc.)
-physical traits (tattoos, scars, birthmarks)
-relationships (& how they handle them)
-accessories (Sherlock Holmes’ pipe, Mary Poppins’ umbrella, Michael Scott’s coffee cup)
-misc. (clothing style, favorite food, quirks (winks, sounds like wheezing from asthma), fears, accent, secrets, talents, astrology, religion/beliefs, politics, socioeconomic background, what drives them to do or be a certain way, self-esteem, grooming (tidy, every hair in place, disheveled, sloppy), the way they carry themselves (confidant, eyes downcast, brisk gait, dragging feet), etc.
Once I know my characters this well, it becomes easier to write about them, to keep them in sync with their true selves throughout the writing. Even though I may not put all these characteristics into the story, somehow the fact that I know this person this well shows through in my writing.
3. Post-Writing Worksheet
This is not a separate worksheet for me, but a continuation of the worksheet begun in #2. I add things as I go along and refer to the character sketch when I get stuck or when a scene isn’t working. It helps me answer questions like would David speak like that, would David have shown up at that party, would David stray that far from his goals, etc.
If you haven’t done this type of worksheet before, I encourage you to try it. Introduce your character to yourself. Maybe you are stuck in a story right now. If so, a character sketch worksheet might help you figure out what isn’t working. If all that sounds too intimidating, try filling one out for a favorite character in someone else’s writing, or for yourself or a friend.
This can be a fun exercise. I keep all my character sketches in a special file, as well as a copy in my notes section of the work in which they appear. (This will be very helpful if I decide to turn any of my works into a series.) Let me know what version of these types of worksheets you might use or comment a specific category or trait I have overlooked.
Happy writing… ~T
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