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Digging Deep: A Character-Building Exercise

Writers are of two minds when it comes to character creation. Some believe that all character details should be worked out before any writing takes place. Others suggest that interesting background stories and characteristics emerge once writing is under way. Your preference may depend on whether you’re a plotter or a pantser. Plotters outline all story events ahead of time, while pantsers “fly by the seat of the pants,” a free-wheeling approach that emphasizes spontaneity.

I consider myself to be somewhere in between—I work with a loose plot that allows for inspiration during the writing process. I also start with general ideas for characters, which are fleshed out by the time I arrive at the end of the first draft. I do find it useful somewhere along the way to go through a list like the one I’m presenting today.

I’ve divided the list into six categories, but this is just a basic profile. If you’re working on a young adult novel set in a high school, for instance, you might delve more deeply into academic achievement, social skills, status, and school activities. I’ve also provided questions to help you look at your characters in different ways. Keep in mind that writers differ when it comes to physical descriptions. Some believe in supplying all the visual details, while others offer only the essentials and allow readers to imagine the rest.

If you get stuck in a scene or with a plot point, it may be worthwhile to return to character creation. Further defining the family history or emotional makeup might just be the catalyst for getting things moving again.

Physical Appearance and Personal Habits

Age, sex, ethnicity, height, weight, eye color, hair color and style, clothing style, distinguishing marks (scars, birthmarks, prosthetic devices), grooming habits, manners and mannerisms

How does the character feel about his or her appearance?

Social Concerns

Educational background, occupation, economic status, religion, political orientation, living conditions, social organizations

How do other characters view this character? Hard-working? Social climber? Spiritual? Eccentric?

Family

Parents, siblings, children, significant other, extended family, pets, family friends, close-knit nonrelated groups

Consider relationships among family members as well as other forces that may affect the family. Any skeletons in the closet?

Childhood

Born with a silver spoon? Raised in the projects or the suburbs? Good times? Hard times?

What main event from the past influences the character’s current life?

Emotional Makeup

Attitudes, self-image, general outlook, hopes, fears, motivations, traumas, ambitions, accomplishments, obsessions, regrets. Extrovert, introvert, or something in between?

What does the character learn about him- or herself by the end of the story? How does the character change?

Unique Characteristics

Hobbies, quirks, and special skills. Mental disorders, psychic abilities, health conditions. Prized possessions. Favorite food, music, and free-time activities

Does the unique characteristic add balance and depth to the character or highlight an imbalance?

 

The next step would be developing scenes or short vignettes to show the character traits.

Strong characters are an essential element of a well-written story. Spending just a few minutes reading through a list of character traits helps develop fully rounded characters and may provide a jumping-off point for dynamic scenes and plot twists.

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