The Ultimate Character Checklist

When developing a character, it’s essential to know “who” that person is, what they represent, and their current journey.

A Character Sketch helps the process, but is only a springboard to creating well-rounded characters; answering particular questions illuminates all aspects of the character—it is then up to you to show the reader what you wish to highlight. Much of what you know about your character will not be revealed, but it is important to be intimately aware of the people you create.

I developed this Character Stretch from a wide variety of sources, altered to fit my needs, with the sole intent of trying to improve my characters. The sketch has evolved, and because of the vast resources used (some surely lost to memory), I hold no bond to it. For that reason, feel free to copy and paste the Character Sketch into a document file, and add or change to satisfy your own purposes.

Characters are made up of three parts: The Outer Person (what the reader sees), which I refer to as the Skeleton; the Interested Person (the actions the character takes and the reader watches unfold), represented by the Flesh; and the Internal Person (what the character, and thus the reader, feels), the Breath of the character.

Character Sketch

Outer Person—The Skeleton

Name, gender, age, general appearance (height, weight, body type), profession and/or skills, education level, family and friend associations with background as necessary to the story; where they grew up (Texan or young girl from Bali), and the particular culture that helped shape them.

Choices of clothing and other possessions (a man who owns a truck or a college freshman driving a BMW) indicates status and is accompanied by layers of attitude; jewelry or not; tidy or disheveled? Somewhere in between?

Gestures or quirks (tilting of head, rubbing hands, brushing at hair, a limp, etc.), not to be overused; if applicable, does the character always put one sock and shoe on before the other, or both socks followed by both shoes? Why?

Speech patterns: slow and thought-out, fast and free of societal filters, contradictions or not, vocabulary and choice of words, sarcastic, impatient, accommodating, condescending—there’s a slew of different reactions and dialogue venues, and you will probably use several in different circumstances for each character.

Paraphernalia and indispensables (purse, wallet, watch, sword, revolver, etc.).

Interests—The Flesh

Favorite and least favorite things to do–how they spend idle time; pet-peeves and prejudices; how they think they appear to others (and how others view them), true or not; to what lengths will they go to accomplish their desires (lie, cheat, and connive, or deal with life’s set-backs and move on).

Is the character’s general attitude haughty, reserved, humble, daring, loyal, over-emotional, analytical to annoyance (we can all be many of these, and so should your characters); typically a good person or one out for themselves (a little of both shows contrast and adds dimension).

Work ethic: what motivates them to succeed and/or do better; what things or scenarios intrigue them? Do they like their job, or tolerate it while harboring deep-seated dreams?

World view? Do they root for the underdog or do they want to associate with the top dog; me against the world or me helping the world, ie., do they feel an obligation to help the less fortunate? What is the purpose of life and their place in it? Is there a God, or does science answer the questions surrounding existence?

Emotions—The Breath

What the character feels when:

They witness someone being mistreated, and what do they do? What do they think and how do they react when they see an animal being mistreated (one’s feeling about animals—dirty, adorable, useful, indifferent—speaks volumes about a person); when someone falls down, do they instantly try to help or stand back and assess the situation before acting?

How do they feel (and act) when they don’t get their way, when they can’t convince another and the outcome is important, at least to them.

What makes them happy/sad? How do they react to their own emotions and the emotions of others? Empathize, sympathize, or neither?

What internal dialogues do they adopt (determined to do better, or wallow in self-pity); do they like who they are?

Their opinion of people outside their economic/social strata: do they strive to be like them or abhor the success of others when they are struggling to make ends meet?

Do they settle for second best or yearn for the best? Do they care about the Jones’s or not in the least? How do they compare their life to others? Do they buy in to media hype or think only fools pay attention?

What do they value? Money, love, friendship, making their own decisions or counting on others to lead them? Loner or social butterfly? Drawn to cliques and the “in group” or avoids them?

Thoughts on life’s purpose and death.

Frugal or wasteful? Planning for the future or living every moment like their last?

Describe a character’s rage, pain, fear, or helplessness? How do they react (physically and internally) when beset by emotion? Do they control their feelings or let loose with tears, hurtful words, or do they fly into a tirade.

When developing a character, place that person in a tense or stressful situation and see how they react. These exercises are great for getting to know your characters, and while the instances you create may not be used in your writing, they just might. Let yourself go to discover who this person is and what floats their boat.

Some writers suggest interviewing your character; try and see if it works for you.

Working through different scenarios will enhance the relationship you have with your characters, and will help readers see them better.

You may not answer all the questions, and that’s okay—the purpose is gaining a better understanding of your character. You may find, like me, that the Character Sketch is filled in bit by bit as your writing progresses.

I titled this The Ultimate Character Sketch, but it only fits that description if you modify to suit your own needs. Have at it and make it fun–writing should be enjoyable, after all.

See you on the next page,

Rick

P.S. I love the graphic at top of page, but I do think it needs the word, MORE, added.

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The Making of a Hero — Part 5

Description is a Silent Tool

The last several weeks I have written about The Making of a Hero, focusing on three of four ways a writer brings the protagonist to life: through action, dialogue, and thoughts. The fourth, and no less important aspect, is description.

Description—within the context of your hero—is the Silent Tool sprinkled through the narrative, interspersed between the action, dialogue, and thoughts in such a way that adds to the character’s personality.

The first thing to understand about describing the viewpoint character is not how they look. The reader will develop a mental picture of the character no matter what you say about their physical features . . . mostly.

The worst possible scenario is having a character look into a mirror or glassy pond and describe what they see:

Mary gazed into the bathroom mirror to see auburn-streaked hair falling around a face she thought too pudgy, the eyes too recessed, the smile more a smirk that appeared disingenuous.

Some of the description works, but looking into the mirror does not. Instead, leave out the mirror and the words effectively tell the reader how Mary feels about herself:

Mary thought her cheeks too pudgy, the eyes too recessed, the smile more a smirk that appeared disingenuous.

The physical features are the least important information revealed to the reader. What we want is for the reader to know the main character, feel what they feel, see what they see, and thus, what the character thinks about the world they occupy.

A man exited the bathroom and started across the basketball court. He wore shorts and flip-flops, with large tattoos on each calf—Wiley Coyote on the left, Yosemite Sam on the right—sunglasses pushed up onto his shaved head, and swaggered as if an exclamation point marking the words on the back of his shirt: Old Men Rule.

This description tells the reader as much about the viewpoint character’s perception of the man as the man himself. We “see” the man, but more importantly, the words “swagger” and “as if an exclamation point” speak more to the viewpoint character’s appraisal than the man himself.

Description can also be used to set the character’s tone. In the following example, the viewpoint character’s awareness of the world imprints his mood.

A dove’s mournful cooing broke the silence, followed by chirps and calls in a soothing musical symphony. A songbird’s lyrical, trilled melody beckoned a mate, silenced by a crow’s sudden cackle, echoed by other shrieking black birds until the calm morning lay shattered in angry tones.

Be cautious of using too much description within the narrative as it can pull the reader from the story’s forward movement. Some refer to too much description as Info-Dump or Back-fill Overload; the best way to avoid such problems is to sprinkle character description within the action of the story—an enhancer, not a distracter.

See you on the Next Page,

Rick

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