*The following is a chapter excerpt from my book Roadmap For Writers and expounds on the use of the character chart shown in an earlier blog post. Many of my Creative Writing students found it useful for fleshing out the characters in their stories. For major characters, I often write several paragraphs or more about each item in the character chart. Write as much or as little as works to make your characters real.
You’ve thumbed the travel brochures, picked a vacation spot. The bags are packed. The car is filled with gas. You’re ready to go. But do you really want to travel alone? Consider asking a friend along. Good traveling companions make a trip more fun.
In writing a snippet of conversation overheard, an article you’ve read, an experience you’ve had or any of a hundred other events triggers a spark in your head. You’re excited and eager to plunge into chapter one or to start plotting an outline. But do you really want to travel alone? Consider asking your protagonist along from the start. Good characters make a story worth reading.
In a sense the reader and the protagonist share the same seat in your story. The idea that got you going has to be an integral part of your protagonist’s existence. Plug your idea into your protagonist’s makeup right from the start. You’ll be well on the way to creating a character readers can identify with and a story they can’t put down. One of the best ways to do this is to make an extensive character chart early in the process of writing a book or short story. Think of your chart not simply as a police report that covers primarily physical characteristics and whereabouts, but rather as a complete psychological workup that includes every facet of the character’s personality and life.
Think about characters who live on in your memory. Scarlett O’Hara. Luke Skywalker. Indiana Jones. Captain Jack Sparrow. Katniss Everdeen. What makes him or her endure? Capture those traits and you have a character who lives for the reader. The key word is live. Any character, particularly the protagonist in your story, must have a life. This includes a past, a family, friends, opinions, goals, fears, all the components of being a living person has.
You, the writer, must know your protagonist as well as you do your brother or sister or best friend. You’ve got to be on speaking terms with all your characters. You must know secondary characters as well as you do your neighbors, the guy in the next office, the stylist who cuts your hair. Otherwise your characters are merely mouthpieces for the narrator — that’s you.
A major character must be extraordinary in some way. If you attend a party where there are fifty guests, this is the one you would tell everyone about afterwards. Imagine what you would have noticed about this person:
- Behavior or Action
- Conversation or Dialogue
- Thoughts, introspection (He’s your character now so you can get into his head.)
These are the same traits that make a character believable and worth knowing. Be sure to give your major character some quirks and faults. Extraordinary doesn’t mean perfect. You want your character to have a reason for not doing everything right.
The following character chart had been useful to many writers. It guides you to include physical, emotional, psychological and social traits as you develop characters. It also includes several components essential to developing a successful plot. A thorough workup on a major character can take three or more single spaced pages. Secondary characters may require only a paragraph or two. Walk-on characters can be covered with a couple of sentences.
Suggestions and examples for making the chart more effective are included below. (Most excerpts and examples are from Devil Moon, a Western romance. My idea was a stage line run by a woman. I knew I wanted to set it in Arizona. That’s all I knew. My heroine-protagonist gave me the rest.)
Meet your protagonist in the character chart. Plug in your story idea. Use the chart in any way that works for you. Use part of it, all of it, expand it. It’s your tire tool now.
- Name: A name should tell something about the character, so choose carefully. The reason a name was chosen can also be important. (He was called T.J. Benton after an uncle who had been hung for rustling. / Her father was Theodore Timothy Gamble. She was called Theodora after him. Her twin brother was called Timothy.)
- Age/Height/Weight/Sex: More than numbers and letters here. Include shape and appearance and the way the character feels about his or her size. (Theodora has an hourglass figure that owes its shapeliness to heredity rather than the confines of corsets which she despises.)
- Birthdate and birthplace: Both these can have more significance to the story than the details on a birth certificate and can factor into the character’s personality. Was he born on Friday the thirteenth? Or in a leap year? (She was born beneath a tree on the banks of the Savannah River on the hottest summer day of 1785.) note: A book of astrological signs can be an excellent resource for character development.
- Hair color/Eye color: Create description that can be used in the text of your story. Remember these features can be telling details about a character’s personality. (Teddy’s hair is the color of taffy candy, brown-streaked with sun-lightened strands. It is long, silky and straight and is her one vanity.)
- Mannerisms, gestures, expressions, sound of voice: Assigning a character a dominant impression, labeling, is an important part of character creation. Give your character a distinctive tag or trait. Assign two or three to a major character. You will use these throughout the story for anchoring with the character. These can include a pattern of speech, an accent, pet expressions, a way of drumming the fingers, a favorite item. Katniss has her bow. Indiana Jones had his whip and fedora. James Bond his martini, shaken not stirred.
- Scars or handicaps (physical, mental or emotional): Include childhood experiences, traumas. (Teddy’s twin brother drowned at age ten. Fifteen years later Teddy still blames herself for the accident that cost his life. Her grandmother believes her continued tomboyishness is her way of making up to her father the loss of his only son.)
- Educational and work background: Account for skills or the lack of them. (Teddy endured her grandmother’s teaching. She did embroidery, learned French, and curtsies but only because it was required of her before she could mount her pony and spend the remainder of the day riding the range.)
- Family members and family background: Include siblings and parents and other influential persons in the extended family.
- Description of home (physical, mental & emotional atmosphere): (Teddy’s grandmother was nurturing. Her father was loving and kind but he was never able to hide his belief that a family’s heritage passed through the male heir.)
- Financial status & feelings about it: (During his father’s illness his older half-brothers began to spend and waste the family fortune, diminishing all assets. Rhys left his family home penniless and embittered.)
- Friends/best friend/romantic interest: The friends a character chooses tell a lot about him. A best friend can make an excellent supporting character and supply backstory throughout the book.
- Enemies and why: A story is about characters in conflict so give your protagonist enemies and give the enemies a reason to be. (Teddy inherited her father’s enemies along with his stage line. Top among them is Parrish Adams. His rival line will go under if Teddy stays in business.)
- Personality type/self-image/attitude: Is your protagonist a loner or leader, cheerful or brooding? What does she think of herself? What’s his attitude about life?(Teddy is a no-holds-barred woman who thinks nothing of walking into a saloon and having a drink with the men while she smokes a cheroot. She has a quick temper, another defense against being a woman. Teddy subconsciously feels half of her is missing and tends to believe others see her that way.)
- As seen by others: Including the views of friends, enemies and minor characters can offer insight into the character and his motivations.
- Ambition/Philosophy/Code of ethics/Religion/Values: These are the traits that determine how a character will act and react in given situations. They are the core of the character. Be wary of violating them by having the character act or react in a way contrary to what you have established as his basic nature. (Teddy’s ambition is to do what she believes her father would have wanted her brother to do. At this she is driven. To fail would be unthinkable.)
- Hobbies & pastimes; music, art & reading material preferred: An unusual hobby can make an interesting tag. Generally these make up the softer side of a character, the rounding out. They may also supply links for subplots and interplay with other characters. (Edward Cullen collected cars, played piano and kept a journal.)
- Habits: Routine and predictable patterns of behavior can be areas of vulnerability for a character.
- Favorite color/foods: Is he turned on by red? Is her bedroom painted black? Has he got a favorite beer?
- Clothing choices & why: Clothes make the man or woman. More significant in some types of fiction than others but useful in helping the reader visualize the character. (Teddy wears pants or shirts in beige or gray and a man’s style jacket or long duster coat. Her grandmother reluctantly makes her garments.)
- Worldliness or lack of it: (Rhys has had all the worldly experiences of high society decadent living. He is a man who has been influenced by outside forces and allowed them to shape his destiny until he found the reserve of power within him.)
- Romantic experience: Relationships help define a character’s expectations from others. (The men in town treat Teddy as one of the boys.)
- Traits admired in others – men/women: (Teddy admires men who know what they want and are willing to work hard for it. / Rhys has always admired people who have the courage to stand up for what they believe in. This is what he sees in the West and what he wants for himself.)
- Positive & negative traits in self & feelings about: Here’s the place for quirks and faults. (Teddy’s strongest traits are her courage and determination to succeed where by any standard she is out of her element as a woman doing a man’s work. Her weakest trait is her refusal to acknowledge the woman within her.)
- Traits that make this character memorable: What makes a character live for readers long after the book is read? (Rhys will be remembered for the way he teases Teddy and for his determination to prove to Teddy and to himself that he is a man of substance.)
- Fears: These are the stumbling blocks that hinder the protagonist from achieving his goals. (Teddy fears failure and is afraid to acknowledge the woman within her.)
- Goals: In the context of your story, what does the protagonist want to accomplish? What does she believe in or care about? What will make him take risks?
- Present problem or crisis — external & internal: What is the character on the brink of doing? What is about to happen that will upset life as your protagonist knows it? (Teddy’s external problem is battling a diabolical rival to keep her stage line running and dealing with an unwanted partner. Her internal problem is coming to terms with her brother’s death and overcoming her denial of her womanhood.)
- Complications: Complications make conflict and conflict makes a good story. Give your protagonist plenty of problems. (Teddy deals with a lack of money, holdups, her unwanted partner, a kidnapping, a flood and a pregnancy.)
- Growth & change in character: At a basic level this is what your story is about. Your protagonist must be different at the end of the story than he or she was at the beginning. (Teddy grows by confronting her demons and by trusting someone other than herself. Only then does she truly have anything to give to another.)
- One line characterization: Get a handle on your characters. (Teddy Gamble is energy and ambition, a woman no man would forget but a stranger to herself until love unlocks the secret self within her. /Rhys Delmar is a man forged by the West into one of its finest and strongest, a man both tender and formidable, a man to love.)
There you have it. Do this for all major characters and as is needed for others. You’ll have the basis of your plot when you’re finished. You’ll have most of the major action. You can quickly outline the rest of your story.
- Birthdate and birthplace
- Hair color/Eye color
- Mannerisms, gestures, expressions, sound of voice
- Scars or handicaps (physical, mental or emotional)
- Educational and work background
- Family members and family background
- Description of home (physical, mental & emotional atmosphere)
- Financial status & feelings about it
- Friends/best friend/romantic interest
- Enemies and why
- Personality type/self-image/attitude
- As seen by others
- Ambition/Philosophy/Code of ethics/Religion/Values
- Hobbies & pastimes; music, art & reading material preferred
- Favorite color/foods
- Clothing choices & why
- Worldliness or lack of it
- Romantic experience
- Traits admired in others – men/women
- Positive & negative traits in self & feelings about
- Traits that make this character memorable
- Present problem or crisis — internal & external
- Growth & change in character
- One line characterization