When I first started writing characters, I drew information from lists online to see what details I should record. I hope that, one day, an aspiring writer will use this list as a template too. Although said aspiring writer may run into the same problem I do, where they’re intimidated by how comprehensive and long this list is. Yet every time I finish a character with these guidelines, I'm confident that I've already done the hard part of creating a story. I tend to think I’m good at characters, and part of that feeling comes from this character sheet I lay before you. Whenever you want to start, click on the Character Creation Template in the link. I’ll walk you though it step by step, but feel free to leave out some of these tips if the list looks like too much to do in one go. 

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side note: get a DnD sheet if that means that much to you! No, seriously, that’s not a bad accompaniment to this process.

NAME: I use Behind the Name and Behind the Surname to find names for my characters. For example, I’m often tempted to name female characters “Perdita” because it’s based on the Latin perditus, meaning, “lost.” Isn’t that such a great starting point for a character, being lost? Try the same thing: define your character through an object or attribute or allusion, and then look for it on this site.

BOOK: What story you’re going to put this character in.

GENDER, AGE: Self-Explanatory. Try to fill this in after you do traits and details— don’t’ let these two limit your character!

ETHNICITY: A lot of writers focus on what life is like in white culture. I’m guilty of this limited viewpoint too. You don’t always have to write outside of white culture, but you should still have this item available. Otherwise, you’re just going to write someone with the same culture as yourself. You shouldn’t always be doing this. Research the culture of your choice a bit (I recommend everyculture.com), read the blog of someone in that culture, and, most importantly, don’t stress too much over it. http://writingwithcolor.tumblr.com is a good resource for this, although you don’t have to adhere to everything they suggest.

GOAL: The endgame of all your character’s plans. What’s their dream? What will they get if everything goes their way?

NEEDS RIGHT NOW: Everyone has goals, but sometimes they’re too lofty or abstract or big for one story. You may have goals, but do you spend every waking moment pursuing them? No— you go after what you need right now. A way to pay rent, news on a sick friend, a hug. If you look at a character’s overall life, you can tell what their goal is. But in microcosm, characters are motivated by their most pressing need, not want.

5 LIKES, 5 DISLIKES, 5 BOTH: Your character will eventually have more than 5, of course, but these are the important ones. Try to go for a variety of things: vehicles, fonts, locations, media, animals, whatever are their favorite and least favorite things. If stuck, just look around your room, find objects, and ask, “Would she like this? Would he dislike that? Or maybe be neutral towards because I’m looking at a fucking water bottle?” Though I put this on the first page, I tend to leave this item for last. Just happens that way.

But what do I mean by ‘both’? I mean both like and dislike. Guilty pleasures, hate to loves and love to hates, the "it's complicated"s, that kind of stuff. Say your character loves fedoras but hates iguanas— how would she feel about an iguana wearing a fedora? You put it in the ‘both’ category! But that’s a silly example. If you put, say, Bill Cosby in your character’s ‘both’ category, your character may be a champion fighting against rape culture that also loves friendly-family comedy. Or even feel the reverse! Give your character more options than “yay!” or “boo!”

5 GOOD HABITS, 5 BAD HABITS, 5 QUIRKS: Dog-gonnit, Nick, just say ‘characteristics’ like our momma taught us! No. Characters are not algorithms, always outputting the same angry or panicked reaction to everything. You can put “loudmouth” or “clean” under either characteristics or habits. But when you say ‘habits,’ it’s a reminder that character is in constant motion, and that everyone has a breaking point. He wasn’t born ‘clean,’ he learned it from an uncle that got him to sweep the floor to the rhythm of a beautiful classical waltz, and in college cleaning became a ritual to keep him calm in stressful situations. And she may be a loudmouth around most people, but when the jerk coworker who belittles her gets promoted to her boss? Her fear wins out, and in those situations she keeps quiet. It’s never “she always says the loudmouth-type thing.” It’s “without enough resistance or pressure, she will be a loudmouth.” Character is habit, your highness— anyone who says different is selling you something.

I don’t have much new to say on quirks other than they should convey something about the character visually.

When choosing these 5, pick one of each to be the defining strength, defining weakness, and defining quirk. This is called “the cheater’s guide to building characters.” It’s also handy to remember if you want to keep your character simpler in your head. But yes, if you need a good character in 5 seconds, or just a starting point, go with the first defining strength, defining weakness, and defining quirk to come in your head.

FEAR OF: Can be existential or simple, old age or spiders. Be wary of going too off-the-wall with this, such as a fear of old spiders.

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You know what, this is actually kind of scary.

MOTIVATION: Why is your character pursuing that goal of theirs? Don’t be afraid to be simple here. A lot of geniuses and leaders, I imagine, can be traced back to a want of power or a need of love. Occasionally, I need a reminder like this. This is the spear that nudges your character forward when they’re at the crossroads, or standing in the middle of nowhere.

DEFINING CHARACTER TRAIT: I’ll teach this the way I was taught it. We all think Hermione’s a good character, right? There’s a lot to her: her refusal to believe in superstitions in a magical world, her involvement in elf-rights campaigns, her ability to be skilled while still being naïve. Oh, and also that she’s badass. But if I asked you to summarize her personality in one word, what would you say? Likely, you’d say “brainiac.” Saying that doesn’t get rid of all of those other character traits, but they all support each other. And that’s what you should do with your characters: trim them down to a couple of words that will be their core, then use the complex stuff for everything revolving around that core. Don’t go into this all like, “My character is Everything and Nothing, The Moon and The Sun, SO COMPLEX YOU GUYS.” If you want your character to stand out, first you must find out what they’re standing out in comparison to. Hermione’s unique compared to other brainiacs, and yours will be too if you keep to everything on the list.

HAPPY WHERE (S)HE IS?: Is your character satisfied with their current predicament? Why?

CHANGE SITUATION?: Could you character change their predicament? Will they? Why?

WHAT (S)HE WANTS TO BE: This is similar to your character’s goal, but more concrete. If your character’s goal is to take over the world, then being a loved politician or respected general would fit well under this category. Basically, who is your character in their dreams?

WILL (S)HE GET THIS: How confident is your character in achieving this goal? Maybe they’re lazy, or fearful of their own potential, or believing that what they want is bad for them. Maybe not. Having a goal is one thing; how your character pursues it is another.

STAND FOR: If your character’s allegorical in a way— representing liberal feminism or Republicans or whatnot— then make a note here. If not, get a sense of your character’s symbolic worth in this section, even if it’s as simple as “the spirit of courage.”

CREATE OR PREVENT CHAOS: When your character enters a situation, is he or she likely to make things more chaotic or less? Is this intentional on their part?

ENDS JUSTIFY MEANS: Does your character believe that the ends justify the means?

TEACHER: Which non-parental authority figure taught your character the most? You don’t need to go into too much detail on the teacher, just what was learned.

ENEMIES: Who’s against your character? Is it big and general (the Goblin Army) or specific and small (the guy in front of her in class who never showers)? Give your character someone to complain about. And yes, putting “my character is her own worst enemy” in this slot is very clever, now try harder.

FRIENDS: What are his friends like? How does he influence them? How do they influence him? What do they all have in common? What do they go out and do together?

HYPOCRISY: I touched on this subject before, but this is why you say “habits,” not “characteristics.” Everyone has that little secret, the time they’re two-faced and refuse to show their face. If your character’s religious, and preaches for that religion, did they not troll online every Friday, or eat bacon cheeseburgers when no one’s looking? And if they have none of these, well, that’s rather suspicious, isn’t it? This is why you don’t put ‘herself’ down for enemies: here’s where you create tangible, real conflict. Everyone has themselves as an enemy.

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LOOKS LIKE: Broadly speaking, whom does your character look like? Could be a movie star, someone you know, or whatever defining features will be noticed first by other characters. If you can acquire a picture of your inspiration, pin it to your writing notebook.

VOICE: You can put in this section something like “nasally” or “confident,” but I like to treat this section like “looks like.” Maybe your characters sounds like or has the same verbal tics as your Uncle Bruce, or Skeletor.

POSTURE: Does your character stand up straight? How does he or she present his or her self?

FAVORITE FOOD: With this answer, you should also give a brief note to your character’s eating habits. I’ve mentioned this before, but how your character prepares, consumes, and stores food is a great example of personality in action.

HOPES: Have you ever had wild prayers about the future? Something that may be out of your control, but that you wish for anyways? Well, your character has that too, and it’s good to jot those hopes down.

WHAT JOKES DOES (S)HE NOT GET: Again, touched on before. Essentially, asking yourself this question makes you envision an active character, a person reacting to something. This question also distances you from your creation, since you’re not likely to see yourself as the person who “doesn’t get” certain types of humor. This category also helps define what your character is not.

SELF OR WORLD: If your character had to choose between saving themselves or saving the world, which option would they pick? Why?

PERCIEVED AS: How do other people view your character? Can be anywhere from completely accurate to completely wrong.

PERCEPTION OF WORLD: How does your character see the world? Is it an optimistic, pessimistic, or balanced view? Basically, when your character’s talking about an unspecified “they,” who are “they”?

TRUSTING OF OTHERS?: Pretty straightforward: does your character tend to trust other people?

TONE/CERTAINTY IN DECISION: Remember when I talked about voice and said I preferred not to put in that category something like “smooth” or “on the verge of crying”? This is the section where such answers belong. “Certainty in Decision” is related to Tone, but separate. It’s also simpler than it sounds— is your character certain in everything they say? Or do they fill their speech with “wells” and “umms” and “you know, if you’d like to”s?

(S)HE’S THE PART OF US THAT: How will your character connect to a reader on an emotional level? To explain this section, let’s say I was designing Donald Trump as a character for an American conservative audience (this exercise assumes that Trump doesn't exist in the real world… feel free to stay in that scenario for as long as you need to). I’d put down in this section, “the part of us that wants to fight back the bullies, real or imagined.” Without meaning to make this article any more political than it needs to be, I’d say that’s the reason why people like Trump: he speaks to a part of conservative psyche. If your character speaks for a mental or psychological part of the audience, like “the part that wants to talk back to teachers” or “the part that just wants to live their own life,” it’ll likely receive as much attention from your readers as the actual Trump.

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BASELINE EMOTION EXPERIENCED: I talked about having your character not always responding to everything with the same characteristic. But there can be a default emotional state, such as “angry” or “cheery” that motivates your character to accomplish their goals. You character does X because she feels Y. This works in tandem with…

BASELINE EMOTION GIVEN TO AUDIENCE: What do you want your audience to feel when this character is mentioned or encountered? If you know what you want your audience to feel, than you can give your character direction. Pairing up the two “baseline emotion” sections is a good starting point for character design. The Joker likely has “giddiness” as Baseline Emotion Experienced (BEE), and “terror” as Baseline Emotion Given To Audience (BEGTA). The Joker’s goal, from a writing perspective, is now set: he’s going to make the audience shit their pants, but while remaining funny at least to himself. Try other pairings for your own characters. A happy character than invokes dread! A character that fears everything around her almost as much as we fear her!

Also, I owe credit for BEE and BEGTA to Rich Burlew, though he used different words than me.

EMPATHY FOR: Who is your character empathetic towards? This will say a lot about them. And try avoiding writing down here, “Nobody, his is a LONER and COOL.”

EYE COLOR: Yeah, it’s cliché description, but people will ask.

GOOD WITH KIDS?: I like this question because no one really asks it, and yet it’s so good. It’s got all the true-nature-revealed quality of “Do dogs like her?” combined with an actual scene that can be written. Imagine your character surrounded by toddlers. If she’s developed enough, this scene can write itself!

BESERK BUTTON/ INSECURITY: These two are as tight together as a stomach and its stomach lining. What topic will get your character raving mad at the mere mention of it? Comedies tend to have sillier, more-beserkier reactions, but even Lord Varys might get upset if you call him a mermaid or something, even if he doesn’t show his anger in raging and screaming.

VIEWS ON: What does your character believe? Here are some topics regarding what your character might muse on during those late-night philosophical conversations with tired friends. Answer them all:

  • Religion
  • Love
  • Justice
  • Self
  • Humanity
  • Fate
  • Good
  • Evil
  • Death
  • Time

Preface all these buzzwords with “What is” and have your character answer them in their own voice if possible. Answers can be as complex as a whole treatise, can be as simple as “Good is when Bob don’t hit my fence with his tractor.”

NOTE: Views on Humanity is different from Perception of World. Humans may be bastards in your character’s eye, but maybe nature, science, or something outside of people get valued differently by your character.

WHAT’S GOING ON THIS WEEK?: We’re not all set in stone, though we wish we were, ‘cause a stone’s not affected by bad weather or drama at work or finding someone’s wallet on the sidewalk. What just happened to your character before the story starts that slightly affects their mood by the time we first see them?

RELATIONSHIP TO ESTABLISHED CHARACTER: Make your guy a friend or brother or sex slave of one of your other characters! Start a literary universe! Even if it breaks the continuity of the other character like a wooden plank at a dojo, it’ll be worth it, ‘cause now you’re writing the karate master!

REPLACES CLICHÉS WITH: Clichés comes from subcultures like baseball or superhero clubs or holodeck adventures. What’s your character’s frame of reference? Instead of writing “a stone’s throw away,” maybe she can say “a racetrack away” if she’s really into car racing. WARNING: THIS CAN BE OVERDONE. USERS SHOULD TAKE CUATION AND HOLD THEIR HIPPOGRIFFS BEFORE OVERINDULGING IN THIS PRACTICE. NOTE HOW I USED CLICHÉS IN THIS POST WITHOUT COMPARING EVERYTHING TO STAR WARS OR SHAKESPEARE.

When you’re writing a lot of details like this, it’s easy to forget a character’s core. In fact, overdesigning is a problem that happens to me a lot. Make your character a real person first, and then start adding in the weird and quirky.

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Now, onto backstory…

BIRTHPLACE: Location matters for character. I usually don’t have to do much research for this one… I think of a character, and then match his traits with what I associate with a city. Your easygoing character could naturally come from a small town in California, I think.

RELATIONSHIP WITH PARENTS: Freud put a big emphasis on this aspect of life for a reason.

RELATIONSHIP WITH SIBLINGS: Like above, this is a question that has a big impact on how your character becomes who she is. I tend to write these character lists by starting with a few quirks or traits that play well off of one another, then back-engineering the moments in the past that made these characters like that. I finish off by filling out details as I go. Did your character’s adventurous streak come from an overprotective brother? Or maybe a fun-loving sister?

HOW LONG MARRIED/WHEN MET: How long has your character been married for? Or, to put it another way, what was the moment where they met their true love like? Feel free to write N/A for this question.

PARENTS’ OCCUPATIONS: … I think I’m using the right possessive. Anyway, this is a more concrete way of establishing your character’s social class.

EARLY LIFE: I spend at least six lines of loose-leaf on this one. What were the early factors that influenced the person your character becomes? This is the part of the list that becomes most like storytelling.

COLLEGE/BEYOND: Another story worth six lines. Your character does not have to go to college. At some point, though, your character becomes independent and takes their own destiny in their hands. For most people, that’s around college age.

JOB: Where do they work? What as? Like the last question, disregard if your character is too young.

RELATIONSHIP TO BOSS/CO-WORKERS: How do they get along with people in a professional setting?

HOBBIES: What does your character do in his/her spare time?

LIVING SITUATION: Describe not just where they live, but how they affected their surroundings. Is the room messy because of them? Is she a fixer-upper? Did he make the room smelly? Use your imagination here.

LIFE-CHANGING EVENT: Your character wasn’t always your character. Something happened in their life that forever changed their personality. Often, this moment in time is where their inner conflict comes from. Can be as great as a kidnapping, or as small as a lost teddy bear. In either the “Early Life” or “College/Beyond” section, write “LCE” so you know when this moment happened. Go into lots of detail in this section: this is probably the most important bit of backstory in your character’s life.

 

At this point of character creation, these lists take up three pages of loose-leaf. But I’ve usually filled out beforehand a fourth sheet— research. If my character is obsessed with octopi, for example, you’ll be damned sure this side of loose-leaf will be all about octopi. If you’re talking about a culture other than your own, or another time period in history, this is where you’d put your notes.

 

And that's it! If you want to see a character I created for a story I'm currently editing, click on the link for Character- Cesar Thumb.

Published by Nick Edinger