When starting a story, everyone has a different way of developing characters. Some writers just jump right into the tale and see what happens whereas others write character sheets or biographies. I’m going to discuss a couple of ways that I, and friends, develop characters. Hopefully this will help some of you new writers or even some experienced writers who need further guidance.
Learn as You Write:
For the first series I worked on (note picture above), I really had no guidance for my characters. I may have created two paragraph character sheets, but otherwise, I just let them do what they wanted to do. This may sound strange to non-writers, but sometimes the characters just write themselves. You may have an idea of how a character will act, but once you start writing about him and letting him interact with other characters, you may realize that this person is completely different than what you had originally expected.
The more you write about the character, the more you get familiar with him or her. Sometimes I write short stories involving the character to see how she’ll act in certain situations. My favorite way to explore the character though is through roleplaying with friends. I’ll start an IM story and ask my friend if I can throw in one of my characters. As we write together, it forces me to explore how this character is going to see the world, feel, and think. It really helps me see if I know my character. Doing this also enables you to see if some of your characters are way too similar. Right now I have two characters, Elmaris and Kep, who seem too much like each other. What I may do is write a quick scene with just the two characters together and see how they act around one another. If I can’t differentiate between them, then I know I need to change one of them…or else merge them into one character.
Now, even if you create a biography or character sheets, that doesn’t mean that your characters are not going to change. Characters grow as you write about them, so don’t be afraid to write more with the characters even if you think you have them completed.
For my first series, I just learned as I wrote. With my current series, I decided to take a different approach and wrote biography sheets. Some of you may ask, what’s the difference between a biography sheet and a character sheet? Really nothing, but for me, a biography sheet is more heavily “story” oriented whereas character sheets are more “logistics” based. I’ll explain what I mean in both sections.
My biography sheet is pretty simplistic. It just has the basic information describing a character to help me stay consistent during the story, but it also has the biography of everything that has happened in this character’s life.
Like I said, simplistic. I use maybe two sentences to describe the appearance, but that’s it. The biography can be anywhere from 1 page to 5 pages, depending on how detailed or important my character is. I also like to include “avatars” of the character. I pick actors that I think would work well and throw a picture in there to help me remember what my character looks like.
The benefits of writing a biography is that you know exactly what your character has been through. Some of the questions you may ask yourself are: Where was she born? Who is her family? What was her childhood like? What’s her adulthood like? What important things have happened to her? And so on and so forth. It’s good to know where your character came from so you know how she should act. So, if a character might have almost drowned when she was a kid and developed a fear of water, you don’t want her happily splashing around in a stream. If anything, the biographies help with character consistency.
There are plenty of character sheets out there that you can use to construct your cast, but for the sake of this blog, I’ll share one that I’m currently using. A.E. MacKellar shared this with me as we started writing our characters for our joint book. I’ve modified some of it to prevent SPOILERS from happening, but this is an example of what you can use to help you develop your characters in a more logistic fashion:
Character’s Full name:
Reason for Nickname:
Glasses or contacts:
Type of body/build:
Shape of face:
Character’s typical hairstyle:
Are they healthy:
If not, why not:
Relationship with him/her:
Relationship with them:
Relationship with her:
Relationship with him:
Relationship with each:
Most important childhood event:
Character’s greatest fear:
What is the worst thing that could happen to them:
A Single event that would throw life in complete turmoil:
Depressive or SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder):
Greatest strength in personality:
Greatest weakness in personality:
How character reacts in a crisis:
How character faces problems:
Kinds of problems character usually runs into:
How character reacts to NEW problems:
Daredevil or cautious:
When and how much:
When and how much:
How character spends a rainy day:
Character’s favorite color:
Character’s least favorite color:
Least favorite Music:
Use of expletives:
Can character defend self:
Can character use firearms:
Can character handle knives:
Space for Extra Notes:
Looking at it, the list can appear a bit daunting, and at first, it may be hard to discern what information is really needed versus what’s just extra fodder that you might be able to use down the road. The great thing about character sheets, though, is you can keep track of the character’s appearance. You know his family and what events influenced his life. You know simple things like if he drinks or smokes. What I also find exciting is how you develop particular quirks that your character does. For example, maybe Ray runs his hands through his hair when he’s stressed. Perhaps Melody bites her nails or starts to count during trying situations. Even including that a character is allergic to milk can be interesting because it adds something unique about him or her.
The character sheets keep all of your information in one place, too. You can add to it as you write, or refer to it to make sure you remember eye color or hair color. You may think that it’s easy to recall physical things like that, but once you have 10+ characters, it may be difficult to remember who has auburn versus red versus mahogany hair, etc.
This enables you to see how characters feel about each other a well, which I think is important. I like to know who my protagonist considers her best friend or worst enemy. It makes building relationships around different characters that much easier for you.
Character development takes a lot of time, and if you really want to create a well-rounded character, it’s important to take steps to finding what sort of path is best for you. Do you wish to learn as you write? Do you want to focus on a biography? Do you want to write a detailed character sheet. Or, do you want to do as I do and combine everything together?
Frankly, I don’t think you can ever truly know your character until you write about her. Some characters I have spent days developing and tweaking only to begin writing and realizing she’s not the character I had intended to create. You want to be consistent with your character’s actions, yes, but also don’t want her to do something that may be contrary to her character just because you ‘think’ she should act this way.
Writing about characters is very personal. These are people that you have created, people you must mold into something unique and beautiful. In the end, remember to give your character the time and patience she deserves because you want to create someone readers can relate to as well.
I think that will be all for now. I do have some other things I would like to discuss about character development, primarily the do’s and don’t’s, but I’ll save that for another entry. For those of you who still aren’t sure where to begin, here are a few other tips:
Don’t know where to begin? Here are a few other exercises you can try.
Write a biography or character sheet about yourself:
What would you want people to know about you if someone had to write a book about you? What features define you and what parts of your history were important in your development? What people were important in your life? This should be easier to do since you yourself are a character in this world.
Write a Scene:
Don’t know anything about your character? Try writing a scene, like I suggested. Grab a character that you want to create and throw him into an environment. Toss random events at him or different kinds of people. See how he’ll react and what feels “right” for the character. You might learn a lot more from 2 pages of writing than from trying to write a biography.
Ask yourself, what is this character’s purpose? Is he a protagonist or an antagonist? Is he a main character or a minor character? Do you want him to represent a “good” friend or a “funny” friend. Once you realize the purpose, you can start to build off of that character. If he’s evil, maybe bad things happened in his childhood that made him that way. On the flipside, maybe bad events made the character want to be good and make the world better so no one else would have to suffer as he did. Find a starting point and branch out from there.
As always, if you think of things you would like me to write about, leave a comment and I’ll do my best to write a response.