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A Character Development Worksheet
A Statement of Fact
If your main characters are dull then you can kiss your readers goodbye.
I have no idea how many novels I have read over the course of my life. Thousands for sure, and one truth stands out as I look back over the literary landscape of my life: memorable characters mean a memorable book.
I have been known to stop reading a novel after the first couple of chapters simply because the characters did not engage me. They were lifeless. They were meaningless. They were vanilla when what I wanted was Rocky Road.
At the other end of the spectrum are those characters that had depth, that had dimension, that had that special something that I could relate to.
You know this to be true, don’t you? You are all readers and you know I am speaking the gospel here. Knowing that, then, we are armed with an important piece of information as we set about writing our next short story or novel….our characters need to be real.
I have mentioned in other articles that we should interview our characters to understand them better. Another technique I have found useful is to fill out a character worksheet for my characters. This worksheet allows me to gain background on them and thus give them that extra something that makes them interesting.
And what does this worksheet look like? Well I’m glad you asked. Read on!
VERY EARLY LIFE
Under this category I have these subheadings:
Circumstances leading to the character’s birth
Circumstances of the character’s birth
Any oddities during babyhood and early childhood
Why do we care about early childhood? I can’t answer that, but hopefully you will have an answer once you do this exercise. Remember that you are trying to give your characters depth, so the process must include their entire lives. What will be important and not be important in your novel? There is no way of telling that when you begin, but chances are excellent that you will find this background information useful as you begin to tell your story.
Here we discover the nitty gritty about the protagonist’s close family:
Siblings and a bio for each
Relationship with parents
Relationship with siblings
Remember, in real life we are all greatly shaped by our family. At an early age we are walking, talking clones of our parents. As we grow older our immediate family is very influential, either positively or negatively. We seek perspective by putting our character through this exercise. We need to know who his parents were. We need to know what kind of relationship she had with her siblings.
Who are the members of the extended family?
What is the relationship with each of them?
Will any of this be important? That’s hard to say. As I think back over my lifetime, my extended family certainly had an effect on me; was it a monumental effect? Maybe, maybe not, but they most definitely helped shape who I am today. The same is true for your characters.
It is always helpful to listen to the pros
Other close friends
Acquaintances who have a bearing on the story.
As we grow older our friends become more influential in our lives. Think of your closest friends. Think of your best friend. How have they helped to mold your life? Who is your lead character’s best friend? Why are they so close? What events led to them being such good buddies?
And who are the secondary acquaintances who your character knows or will meet? How are they going to add to the story? What motivates those bit-players in your story?
First serious dating experience
First time having sex and with whom
Now here is a category you can really sink your teeth into, right? Think of your own dating experiences when you were younger. Think of the later ones when you supposedly were “wiser.” How did you grow because of them? Now ask those questions of your character. Let’s get to really know this person as a person. Let’s open them up, slice and dice them, and find out what makes them tick emotionally and psychologically.
College or graduate school
How has school affected the character?
I don’t know if your character’s educational background is important or not, but we will never know if you don’t write it out. Our education is part of who we are. My father left high school when he was a sophomore because he needed to find work during the Great Depression. Later, after I had come along, his number one goal was to make sure I went to great schools and then to college. Do you suppose his own lack of education had something to do with his dreams for me? Of course they did.
Another helpful chat with a pro
What does the character love to do during spare time?
What does the character do when bored?
What activities make the character happy?
I have read novels where the main character loved to drink during his spare time. When he was bored he loved to drink. When he wanted to be happy he loved to drink. Get the picture?
Our hobbies say something about us. Some people live on the edge. If they aren’t skydiving this weekend then they are climbing mountains. They own fast, powerful cars and they go through life like their hair is on fire. Some people are perfectly content to stay at home and build model ships. For them that is excitement. How do we become that way? Why does one person love to collect baseball cards while another loves to actually play baseball?
Oh, we are so complicated, aren’t we?
What is your character very good at doing?
What is your character very bad at doing?
Now, how do the answers to those two questions affect your character in the story? What talents do they have that can enhance the story? What inadequacies do they have? How can you weave those things into your novel so that we can all relate to them?
IMPORTANT EVENTS FROM THE PAST
Defining moments during your character’s life.
I have certainly had some defining moments. The death of my father when I was twenty, suddenly catapulting me into adulthood; the time I almost drank myself to death and decided that maybe, just maybe, I needed to change my life; these are the types of events that most definitely change the course of our lives….and…give us depth as people.
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And the Final Result Is?
Well, hopefully the final result of this character description is a character who will be fascinating to your readers. Remember my earlier words: memorable characters make for memorable books. To ignore that fact is to doom your book to failure. You can tell an incredible story, but without fascinating characters telling that story…living that story….your story will end up on the junk heap of good intentions, and I don’t think that’s what you want now is it?
Now go sit down at your computer and get to know those characters. Your readers will thank you for it.
2013 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)
“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”
© 2013 Bill Holland