Let’s Talk Character

Characters. We know them. We love them. We love to hate them. Sometimes, we just flat out hate them. Some are dynamic, and some are flat. Characters are the central actors in any work of fiction. And I would dare to say that even in plot-driven novels, good characters make the difference between a good story and a great story. There are entire books that help creatives dig deep into the process of character creation. And the internet is filled with time sink worksheets that ask for all sorts of minutiae, such as your character’s favorite food. Is this interesting to know? Sure. But why spend time on the details if they won’t be relevant? Why answer hundreds of questions about the main players in your fictional stage before you even start drafting?

So, if I don’t fill out and learn all this information, you might ask what do I suggest instead? And that’s simple: Start by knowing only the relevant basics for the characters. You want to know just enough to get into their heads, but not so much that you could win a trivia contest about their daily lives. Allow me to offer a simple Character Profile Worksheet.

I’m not going to go over everything on the sheet, but I will talk about why I start here. Look at the center box. Here we see the basic physical description of our character. Just as the character exists in the center of a nexus of internal and external factors and relationships, so too does the box containing the character’s physical description. Surrounding this box are the other factors that often become important for character growth and plot progression: the character’s family and their relationship, social relationships with friends/mentors/rivals, character flaws/ideals/goals, and the character’s place in the world around them.

Is this list exhaustive? No. And I do go back and add more details later when I write up the character narrative. Once I have these profile sketches for my main characters and a general plot summary, I write up a 2-3 paragraph narrative about the character that incorporates the elements of the profile and fleshes out a few of the details. If the character has a strained relationship with a parent, this is the place to say why. How did the character earn their rival? What type of role does their mentor play? How did they come to have a particular goal? Again, this is not a character biography. This is just a little snippet to help me get into the character’s head.

But no character exists in a vacuum, and so I don’t create them that way. When I brainstorm characters, I shift among them so that their goals, ideals, and social circles clash and intersect. Currently, I’m brainstorming a dark academia piece, and so one character needs a specific rare book for her dissertation research. Another character needs to steal that book (she lost it years ago, and it belongs to her family) to begin to mend the relationship with the family. It takes longer to brainstorm each character by switching back and forth, but it helps ensure characters have logical reasons to interact.

And that’s something to consider, which I’ll explain by way of a Dungeons & Dragons cliche: a group of adventurers all find themselves in a tavern. That’s how the story starts. They don’t know each other, so why should they interact? In a tabletop roleplaying game, the players know their characters need to interact with each other to progress the game, but the characters may have no reason to talk to these random strangers, let alone trust them to be companions in arms. These initial conversations are always awkward and forced, which dispels any suspension of disbelief.

The same is true in fiction. Give characters motivations and traits that clash. Place them either in or adjacent to the same social circles. Random interactions can happen with strangers, yes, but they should not be the norm. And this character profile sheet is how I go about making sure that my characters have reasons to interact. Remember: interactions can be both positive and negative. They can be big reasons, and they can be little reasons. But the reasons for the interactions and the place where they happen have to make sense.

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