We all have a favorite character, the one that leaves us entranced and longing to reach out for more. Its the one we would love to meet, if only they were real, or perhaps we simply adore the thought of getting lost in their lives through the pages of their story. Whether it’s Hermoine Granger’s notorious wit, the brooding Heathcliff, the adventurous Frodo Baggins, or the simple ass-kicking Katniss Everdeen: there is an underlying current of authenticity that ties these characters together. They feel more like actual living, breathing human beings than mere characters on a page. They speak to us in a way that cookie-cutter fiction cannot. Their stories become our stories if only because we allow ourselves to believe in their magic, to believe that someone somewhere is just like them. Or perhaps it is simply because we can glimpse pieces of ourselves within them.
Even the most blindingly original plot can stall and die namelessly if the characters appear too one-dimensional. Bland characters will leave your story flat and easily forgotten. As readers we crave the human elements, a balance between flaws and redeeming traits. We crave the push and pull of conflict, watch the turmoil unfold before our very eyes. We want to see drama that doesn’t directly belong to us. We want to feel something real.
So how do you do it? How do you take a piece of paper and use only the written word to create a fully fleshed out human being? I would love to tell you that there is a secret formula to it; that all you have to do is add a dash of insecurity, a dollop of wit and a whole spoonful of bravery, bake on high for thirty minutes and viola: the perfect character will magically appear and dance across your blank page. But alas, the reality is far less glamorous than the fiction I can spin. What it really comes down to is taking the time to sit down and work hard. Read a few psychology articles if you have to, don’t forget to throw in your common sense and delve deeply. To create the perfect character you need nothing more than a lot of creativity and careful planning.
Personally, my character planning stage is one of the longest and most thought-out portions of my writing process. This is mainly because I am a firm believer that the characters are what truly make a story. As a reader, if I can’t form some type of feeling about the characters involved, I am drastically less likely to finish the book. I don’t even have to like them- but I have to feel something.
I tend to work off of a general worksheet that I’ve created over the years and continue to alter as needed. One of my favorite things to do to really get into a character’s head includes a fun little writing excersize that I encourage anyone to try. I will take a character and start writing about a pivotal moment in their backstory. This is a story that will, more likely than not, never make it into the final product- I write it for me alone. I will also occasionally take an existing scene and write it from another character’s perspective. I find it helpful to figure out their individual motivations throughout the story. My personal motto is to treat each character as though they feel the story is about them.
My character analyses are constantly evolving, I don’t stop adding to it just because I’ve started my writing. In fact, I tend to go back through and do a lot of updating during my editing process to clean it all up. It is at this point that you start to see how your characters fully develop during the story and can fine-tune their journey and reactions along the way.
Below is the general worksheet that I use. Feel free to take it and change it to fit your own process, or send me some suggestions- I am always open to new ideas. For your convenience, I have this worksheet in Word and PDF format, along with a few other tidbits, over on the resources page right here:
Without further ado, here it is:
Character Analysis Worksheet
- Story behind nicknames (if any):
- Main or minor character:
- Character’s role:
- Eye color:
- Hair color:
- Hair style:
- Style of clothing:
- Scars, tattoos or piercings:
- Most striking or memorable physical feature:
- Describe their speaking voice and likely vocabulary:
- Type of personality (ex: perky, broody, quiet):
- Introverted or extroverted:
- Special skills/talents:
- Critical flaw (and how it will impact the story):
- Nervous traits:
- Best friend:
- Any enemies:
- Favorites (ex: food, books):
- Education Level:
- Effects of their environment on them:
- Back story:
- Motivation (What does the character really want?):
- What is the character most afraid of:
- What is the character’s ‘mask’ that lets them hide from the world:
- Character’s journey at the end of the story looking back- what they didn’t know:
- Internal conflicts:
- External conflicts:
Factors to Identify for Later Writing:
- How will you set up the story to help your audience relate to the character when they are being introduced into the story?
- Character flaws and how they are introduced:
- Meetings with other characters or pivotal scenes from this character’s viewpoint: