#7 DEVELOPING CHARACTER, Part 1: Charts Can Help, Honest!
Bobbi JG Weiss 3/26/14
If you read writing blogs, I’m sure you’ve seen character development charts. Every author seems to have one. Just fill in the blanks and voila! Instant fleshed-out character. My problem is that I don’t always know how to fill these charts out. Yes, they seem obvious when I skim them, but when I actually try to fill in those blanks, I get stuck. I know what kind of information should go there, but I don’t know how to decide specifics. I need help. I need examples.
So I created a chart that includes detailed prompts. It was published in my book Writing Is Acting: How to Improve the Writer’s Onpage Performance. I hope you find it useful. (And in my next blog on April 9, I’ll post a filled-out example of the chart using Luke Skywalker as the subject.)
CHARACTER NAME: full legal name
NICKNAME(S): if any
ALIAS: official or unofficial codename(s), if any
AGE: if known
NATIONALITY/ETHNICITY: clan, family, race—is the character even from Earth? from a time in the future? the past?
MODEL: Pick a famous actor or any person you know to serve as a physical model—this can be helpful for easier definition of a character's looks and general mannerisms. It can also help you keep your character consistent. At some point, however, your character should develop past this model so that you end up with your own creation. If you do your job, that will happen sooner than you expect.
GENERAL PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION
Hair Color and Style:
Other Specific Body Characteristics: A limp, scars, mannerisms, postures, physical attitudes important to the character's definition. Include why they have these traits, how they got them. Is character even aware of these traits? If not, would character care if he did know? Do these characteristics have a specific, important effect on others?
FASHION PREFERENCES: Clothes, jewelry, watches, hats, scarves, tattoos, etc. Why does the character present himself this way? Does the character have a choice? Does the character have more than one way of dressing (regular dress vs. a uniform or a costume)? How important is this "look" to the character? Is the character ever seen dirty, or is character meticulous?
PERSONALITY: Is the character likable or unlikable (and according to whose standards)? Does she treat others nicely or rudely? Is she easily irritated? Easygoing? Boring? Exciting? Assertive? Passive? Easily intimidated? Does the character live in reality or in a fantasy world? (That question can apply to real “Reality” as well as any fantasy world that exists only in the character’s mind — e.g., your character might be nuts.) It might be helpful to use a famous actor or another character of fiction as a model for your character's personality -- a "type." Again, use this model only as a foothold to develop beyond.
FAULTS: This may overlap information in PERSONALITY, but this category lets us isolate non-physical flaws that really affect the character’s behavior and, so, the outcome of the story. We’re talking flaws as in a bad temper, impatience, hatred of an ethnic group, fear of spiders, inability to work in a group, illiterate, gullible, doesn’t bathe, etc.
Other Significant Relatives:
Note: Perhaps the character doesn’t even know his own family origins. If so, why not? Do others know of his origins while he does not? Why? Is he the only one who does know his origins? If so, does he tell anyone else? Does he prefer being a “mystery man”? Has the character lost his family? If so, how? How has he reacted to this loss? Does the character avoid his family? Love them? Hate them? Is he scared of them? Are they scared of him? Do they love/hate him? If so, why?
WHERE/WHEN BORN: if the character knows (or if you the writer want the reader to know but not the character to know)
CIRCUMSTANCES OF BIRTH: if the character knows (or if you the writer want the reader to know but not the character to know)
EDUCATION: Did the character go to school? If so, where? If not, why not? What grade/degrees did the character finish? Did the character enjoy school? Did the character do well in school? Does the character carry good or bad memories of school? Does the character think a formal education is important?
POLITICAL BELIEFS/PARTY AFFILIATIONS: These can refer to real political entities, or you can fabricate a whole political/world structure for your story if, say, you’re writing science fiction, fantasy or alternate history.
RELIGIOUS OR PHILOSOPHICAL BELIEFS: If any — can be as far-out as necessary for your story.
LIKES/DISLIKES: Foods, people, entertainments, cars, music, animals, colors, pastimes, hobbies, philosophies, sports, obsessions, phobias, anything of significance large or small.
FRIENDS: Who? Does the character even have any friends? What’s the association? Are these real friends or only acquaintances? How does the character feel about them? Does the character want these friends? Is the character happy about having these friends? Would the character prefer to have other friends? How do the character’s friends feel about him (if known)?
ENEMIES: Heroes are defined by the enemies they make and vice versa. Be sure that your protagonist’s enemies are designed to clash exactly against his deepest desires and needs, whether the protagonist is aware of this or not. Be sure that your antagonist is, after all of the protagonist’s development, a fully developed individual as well.
DESCRIBE CHARACTER'S HOUSE/DWELLING/POSSESSIONS: This is terribly revealing about a character. Know those things that the character lets other people see vs. ones that character keeps hidden.
SPECIAL TALENTS (NOT SUPERHUMAN): Intelligence, dexterity, gracefulness, cleverness, a sexy voice, the ability to motivate others, a good sense of accounting, an understanding of human behavior, a way with children, an ability to always dress snappy with little money, an affinity for birds, a really good cook, etc. Any talent or ability that serves your story.
SUPERHUMAN POWERS/ABILITIES: How were these powers acquired? By accident? On purpose? Who was involved? Did it hurt? Does the character like these powers? Does the character use them? How often? Under what circumstances? Would the character get rid of these powers if she could? Divide the powers between mental and physical.
PROFESSION: What does the character do for a living? Does he like his job? Does he even have a job? What might he rather do for a living if he could?
INCOME: What does the character earn on the job? What would he rather be making if he could? Is the character satisfied with his earnings? Might this be a reason for the character's activities (thief on the side, owns an Internet site, holds two jobs, etc.)
SOCIAL STATUS: Describe the circle of friends and acquaintances the character has. What do they think of her? Why do they know her?
SIGNIFICANT EVENTS IN CHARACTER'S LIFE: List any events that have shaped the character's view of life. These event/s need not be traumatic or earth-shattering, just important to the character. These events could have happened last week, during childhood or in a past life — whatever’s appropriate to the story.
AMBITIONS/DESIRES IN LIFE: Is the character happy with his life? What would the character want to be different? What is the character doing to achieve his immediate goals? What is the character doing to achieve future goals? Has the character currently achieved any goals set in the past? Does this character even set goals? Is the character a victim of someone who sets his goals for him, whether he wants them to or not?
Remember, my blog on April 9 will feature a filled-out example of this chart using Luke Skywalker as the subject. See ya then!