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Step Two: Character(s)

assemblyWhile you’ve been thinking about your concept and changes, you’ve most likely been adding to your cast of characters bit by bit. At this point, you have some vague idea of who the major players are, have names or mental images for the most prominent and/or interesting ones, and are at a good place to start a preliminary cast list.

For me, I know a character is important when I start to think of them by name. I also know when I need to put some more effort into character development when I think of a character only as a vague mental picture. Deciding on a name seems to help solidify things, making a foundation that I can build from.

Everyone comes up with characters differently. There are diehard character builders just like there are diehard plotters. A quick look around the web will bring up a plethora of character building forms that list everything from date of birth to favorite ice cream flavor to number and arrangement of freckles on the left buttcheek.

Now, I like knowing about my characters. I like that sense of “yes, I understand this person, I know how to write them.” But I’m also very, very bad when it comes to concrete details. I don’t like nailing down hard facts this early because then my perfectionist gremlin rears its ugly little head, and any time I’m tempted to put something in my draft about this character, the gremlin insists on double-checking my character sheet to make sure my draft is accurate. Logical? No. But it is what it is.

To combat this particular quirk of my psyche, I do two things: I focus less on just simple facts (age, height, weight) and more on actions and inner feelings, and I let concrete details originate in the rough draft.

My bare-bones basic character form looks like this:

Name: Not necessarily first-middle-last. It can just be first name or even a nickname, whatever helps lock the character in your mind.

Role: What part do they play in the story? It could be anything from “Empress of the Eastern Stars, savior of her people” to “grumpy innkeeper that irritates main character.” If you want to stick to traditional character roles, you could just do “hero”, “antagonist”, “sidekick”, “mentor”. Whatever make you happy.

Age: Ballpark it if you want. “Young teens.” “Early thirties.”

Appearance: General details. Coloring, body type, gender. “Middle-school girl, tall, gangly (mid-growth spurt), straight brown hair past her shoulders, brown eyes, big smile.”

Most noticeable: When someone meets your character for the first time, what’s the first thing they notice about him/her/them? “Intensely green eyes.” “Very twitchy/nervous.” “Scar across nose.”

Quirk: What’s something that makes your character unique? It could be a hobby, a fidget, a way of talking—just something that helps them stand apart from the rest of your cast. “Knits funny hats.” “Sings opera when no one’s around.”

Personality: I have two lists of personality adjectives (I can’t find the original site, but here’s an example that includes positive, negative, and neutral), and I choose two or three from each list. If it’s a hero-type character, I’ll often do three positive/two negative and flip that if it’s a villain. “Calm, confident, intelligent / boastful, stubborn.” (Another thing to think about with this is that many personality characteristics have both a positive and negative sides. One character’s “brave” might be another character’s “reckless”; you can spin it one way or the other, or you can use both sides at once for contrast.)

Then, if I want to go more in depth, I add:

Heart’s Desire: Deep down, what does your character really, truly want? (Often contrasts with the Deepest Fear.) This isn’t where you put things like “a new pair of boots” or “a Mustang convertible.” This is something like “family” or “acceptance” or “fame”. This might even be something that the character doesn’t consciously know that they need to be happy. How many brooding anti-heroes realize that the one thing they needed to be happy after all was friends/family?

Deepest Fear: Deep down, what does your character really, truly dread? (Often contrasts with the Heart’s Desire.) Again, this isn’t the spot to put “snakes” or “spiders.” This is, to go off of my Heart’s Desire examples, “isolation” or “rejection” or “insignificance”.

Likes/Dislikes: This is where you can put things like “corgis”, “swimming in the ocean”, “dark chocolate”, and “spiders”, “snakes”, “clowns”.

Happiest Memory: What memory is the fondest, brightest moment of your character’s life thus far? It could even be a single second of time: “Holding her mother’s hand on the way home from the bus stop after the first day of school.”

Darkest Memory: What memory is the darkest, worst memory of your character’s life thus far? “The day she was in a severe car wreck and woke up in the ER.”

Then there’s also things like favorite animal, astrological sign, personality type (Myers-Briggs, etc.), favorite color, level of education, career… Add any fields you want.

If I wind up with a cast list that needs more organization, I’ll create a spreadsheet where I can sort by different columns, which comes in handy when you need to see which characters are of a certain species or from a certain planet. Here’s an example from an older story (you can see the fields are different from what I have above and they don’t make much sense out of context, but you get the general idea):

Screen Shot 2017-03-27 at 7.25.04 PM


So, the assignment for this week is to start work on your Characters. If you just want to do your main character, that’s fine. If you know more members of your cast and you’d like to flesh them out before you get deeper into your story, that’s okay, too! Your character list is something that’s going to expand and change over the course of building your story. This is just laying the foundation.

I’ll see you Friday for the Weekly Wrap Up! Keep writing!


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