One of the first things I do when I am planning out my stories is to detail my characters. I have a very thorough detailing process, but it doesn’t always get totally filled out before I begin writing. I can honestly say that I leave about 20-25% of this open to inspiration and development while I’m writing, but that’s really not all that much once you see what I look at detailing before I begin.
I first start with basics, the sort of stuff you might find on a character sheet for designing a character for a role-playing game.
Name, age, race/general appearance, skills, tools, etc.
So the first part of my character sheet template looks like this:
Place of Birth/Hometown:
Defining marks (natural):
Defining marks (added):
Goals: (What is he seeking and why?)
This is part one, and it’s the bare minimum for what I have to have in order to get started, but I prefer to go much deeper.
One of the trickiest things to work out is how to give individual characters their own voice and personality. When I began working on my novel, I knew I wasn’t going to have just a single main character in this story. I have four (possibly five, but I’m really trying to keep it at four) main characters whose viewpoints will carry my readers through this fantastical journey. Characterization was always one of my strong suits, but while online role-playing gave me a fertile field to get lots of practice, it also made it difficult to hone my storytelling skills. I’ve carried over a large part of my character-building from those experiences and I’ve added on a secondary list of character details to my template outline. Some of these came from another author’s website and I really wish I could remember who to give credit. These aren’t all mine, but I’ve used this formula in addition to my basic stats template to flesh out as much detail as I can.
The Character Physically (DETAIL)
1. Posture? (Straight? Slouch? Average?)
2. Walk? Run? (Limp? Quick? Clumsy?)
3. Mannerisms? (Able to vary physical appearance or blend in easily?)
4. Health and constitution? (Does s/he get fatigued easily? Is the character in good shape and physical condition? Any lingering illnesses?)
5. Detailed appearance profile.
The Character’s Appearance
1. How many clothes does this character have? What sort of clothes, and why? How much ornamentation (bracelets and earrings, body piercing items, hair decorations) does the character have? In a given day, how many does this character use? In a given month? For what purpose? Is s/he aware of fashion, does s/he go through longer cycles (seasonal to multiple years) of wearing the same style(s), then change drastically? Why?
2. What are her/his favorite articles of clothing? Why? How often does s/he wear them? What about ornaments?
3. What colors are the clothes? Is there a wide range? Bright or dull? What are her/his favorite colors to wear? What are the character’s favorite materials to wear?
4. Were they bought or home-made, hand-me-downs, expensive? How long has the character owned the wardrobe? Is there a mix of origins and ages to the clothes and ornaments?
5. Do her/his clothes fit well? Is s/he comfortable in them or does the character fight and tug and pull at the clothes and decorations? Do the clothes increase or decrease his/her confidence?
6. Does s/he care for her/his clothes? Keep them up and neat? Is s/he worried about how they look?
The Character’s Voice
1. Does s/he speak in a high or low pitch voice? When might s/he be higher than usual? When lower? Is there a wide range to pitch and volume or is the character’s voice largely consistent and even?
2. Is s/he a loud or soft talker? Resonant or reedy, windy, or nasal? Is the character a trained speaker or actor? Does s/he know how to project the voice?
3. Does the character show emotion through voice or is s/he tightly controlled in that aspect? Make an effort to speak properly or not bother to control his/her words at all?
4. Is there an accent? Anything unusual in pronunciation? Emphasis? Phrasing? Does the character speak with consistent and correct grammar? Does the character stutter and ‘um’ a lot?
5. Is s/he self-conscious when s/he speaks to others? How large a group could the character speak to before s/he became self-conscious?
The Character’s Mind
1. Is the character clever and quick-thinking? Slow of thought and ponderous? If quick, does s/he rush to judgment and conclusion or are his/her thought processes just that quick? If slow, is it because the character wants to examine every angle or because it takes them longer than most of the other characters?
2. Does the character grasp new ideas quickly or slowly? What about new ideas that contradict what the character previously thought?
3. What kind of education has s/he had? [oh lord the class/race/gender questions depending on your world might go here, too]
4. What subjects does the character have knowledge or expertise in?
5. Is the character logical, rational, or emotional? How does the character approach a logical or logistical problem? An emotional problem?
6. Does the character think out things before speaking or can s/he “think on her feet” while speaking?
7. Does the character have contemplative times? Under what circumstances? What are the recurring issues or questions s/he thinks about when thoughtful and at rest?
8. Is the character an idealist or a pragmatist? Thoughtful or inclined to action? How does the character balance thought and action? How does the character relate abstracts with practical, solid concepts?
The Character’s Emotions and Personality
1. Does the character regain energy from being around people or from solitary activities, or being around one or two specific people? Does the character get along well with people? How much effort does it take for him/her to charm someone? How about a group of people?
2. Does the character have many friends? Close friends? What is the balance between the two, many casual friends but no close friends, many casual and one or two close?
3. Is the character hot-blooded or cool-headed? Does the character have good or poor impulse control?
4. Does the character have a narrow or wide range of emotions? Do they show often? Does the character fight his/her emotions or allow them and try to work with them? How does the character feel about emotions in general?
5. Is the character sensitive or receptive to new people or calloused and/or suspicious? Is the character cautious about trusting others with one part of themselves, all parts, just their emotions…?
6. Is the character an aggressive or reactive person? Does the character fight his/her surroundings, look for the negative, or is the character more passive and inclined to let things happen to him/her, or does the character seek out positive things and actively pursue goals?
7. In a danger or emergency situation would the character go to it or run away from it? In what situations is the character incapable of thinking clearly or reacting productively? Is the character more nervous or calm?
8. Does the character have a sense of humor? Is the character capable of making jokes or is s/he better at appreciating them? Can s/he see humor in unfunny situations or dark situations; does the character use humor as a coping mechanism or understand the use of it? Can s/he laugh at himself? Is the character’s sense of humor cruel or generous?
9. Under what conditions could the character be harmful or mean or cruel to another person? What are the character’s moral and ethical boundaries?
10. Is the character a loving person, either romantically or filially? Is s/he capable of or inclined to relate to others in a loving way? Is the character loved by others? In a romantic or a familial way?
The Character’s Wealth, Power, and Influence
1. Does the character have much money? Other material resources? Is it renewable or finite? Does it provide position or respect from others for her/him?
2. Is the character generous or selfish with her/his money and possessions? Is this generosity need based or whimsical?
3. Is the character socially prominent? From wealth, position or office, family history, ability or accomplishment? Is the character socially respected or feared, and how much influence can the character bring to bear for a purpose? How much is the character willing to bring to bear under ordinary circumstances?
4. Does the character rate high in the pecking order with her/his household? How is the character’s outside influence or wealth seen by his/her relatives?
5. By what means does the character exert influence over the people around him/her? Is it direct or indirect? Financial/material or influential/social?
6. To whom is the character subservient? To whom does the character owe fealty or respect? Is this submission by choice or unavoidable? Is it within a social framework or agreed upon by the individuals involved?
The Character’s Activities
1. How does the character spend her/his free time? What activities does s/he choose to do and what activities must s/he do? What does the character hate to do?
2. What does the character’s daily routine consist of?
3. What is the character’s profession or work? What does this occupation involve, what sorts of actions and activities?
4. What kinds of leisure activities does the character plan and look forward to, long term? Such as preparing for a tournament or an event, practicing a sport, or creating a complex craft item.
6. Does the character like to eat or drink, or cook, or does s/he look at food as a necessity rather than a pleasure?
7. How important is sex to the character? What sexual activities does s/he partake in? What are his/her emotions regarding sex? Does the character’s sexual inclinations or past affect how s/he behaves in the rest of her life and if so, positively or negatively?
8. Does the character enjoy performance or creative arts? How important does the character believe these are to life, in a general sense? In a specific sense, how important does the character believe the arts are to him/her?
Character’s Personal Life
1. What are the character’s specific religious beliefs? Does s/he belong to a specific sect or creed? Does the character advocate that group’s beliefs or only elaborate them when asked? How are these beliefs reflected in the character’s actions and activities?
2. How did the character come to the religion? How important is it to the character?
3. How big a role did family play in the character’s upbringing? Was the character raised by a family considered normative by his/her society? Was the character raised by his/her biological family, adoptive family, or a mix of both?
4. How does the character define family, chosen or biological? To which does s/he feel stronger ties, or does s/he feel the ties equally?
5. How did the character meet his/her current spouse(s)/serious lover(s)? How did the character meet past ones? How long did it take before the character considered the relationship serious? Before the character proposed marriage, or did the spouse propose?
6. Does the character have children? Does the character want children? How does s/he view the offspring in question, how is his/her relationship with them?
7. Does the character have a physical home or is the character a traveler, preferring not to settle in any one place?
Character’s Hopes and Fears
1. What things frighten the character, both abstract concepts and concrete items? What would the character’s idea of a terrible fate be?
2. What are the character’s hopes and dreams, abstract and concrete? What would the character’s idea of the best fate in the world be?
3. What are the character’s primary motivations? Are they active or reactive? Solid, tangible goals or concepts?
4. What is one thing the character wouldn’t want anyone to find out about her/him?
Again, I only start the story with about 80% of that list completed and I let the character tell me the rest of the information about himself or herself as I write.
Having all this background knowledge even if it doesn’t actually show up in the story helps me to have a solid answer for what would ___ in this situation? so that I stay true to form and my characters stay realistic.