Character – the aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing.
Not a bad definition of character. A writer must create features and traits that are identifiable as a person using the written word. This person must breathe, lived a life and aid in telling a story. Not an easy hat-trick to perform. This article is a aid to creating living, breathing characters who lived a life.
Where I Met THE SHEET
As a young writer, I was told character driven stories were the bees knees. Somewhere I read acting classes were a good way to learn about character. So I took one. That is how I ended-up a Theatre major and not an English major.
In my junior year of college, I worked with a MFA directing student who presented her actors with a character analysis sheet. By this time, it was clear to me my talent in the theater was as a playwright. I had the brilliant thought that if the character analysis sheet was what an actor would use when playing a character, may it not be good for a writer to use when developing said character? I kept a copy.
I loved THE SHEET! I could start a play knowing the character as if I’d already written the play!
I embellished The Sheet with questions that highlighted experiences from my own life that shaped who I am; those fleeting images that flash through your mind whenever you make a decision. Questions like, “What was your best Christmas present?” and “Why did the character’s parents give he/she the name they did?”
The sheet was covered in tiny writing and getting soft in places. I was afraid it would fall apart, so I typed it into my computer.
In those days, I was studious. I answered every question on the sheet for each character in the play except the most minor. I answered the questions as if I were the character speaking. I generated pages and pages of material that replicated a life lived.
When I sat down to write the play, I knew my characters like the back of my hand. The Sheet still lives on my computer today. I have a short version of it and I continue to revise it. This is the extended version.
- What is the character’s name?
How and why did their parents name them that?
- How old is the character?
What historical events may have happened in their lifetime to affect their life?
- What does the character want?
What are the character’s dreams?
- What aromas trigger memories for your character?
- Where was the character born?
What is the climate like and how did it affect him/her growing up? How do they feel about where they come from?
- How many sisters and brothers does the character have? Is the character the oldest, youngest or middle child?
How do they feel about their siblings? How did they feel about sharing parent(s) with the younger ones? And how did the older ones feel about sharing parent(s) with the character?
- What is your character’s educational background and experience: grade school, middle school, high school, college, trade school, etc.? What was character’s first day of school like and how did parent(s) react? Favorite teacher? Most embarrassing thing? Favorite subject? Sexual awareness? Best friend? Nemesis?
- What type of childhood did your character have?
What did character want to be when 10? Favorite game? Did parent(s) play with the character? Did he/she have a pet? Favorite toy? Family get together? Christmas? Santa? Favorite Christmas present? Worst Christmas present? Lost first tooth? Bad habit? Worst secret? Did they share something with a friend and no one else? Who is that friend and how did they meet? Worst day? Death? New baby? Divorce? Love? What were they most afraid of?
- What type of teenage life did your character have?
What did they most like about themselves? What did they hate? Sexual awareness? What did they want to be? What did they want to be within the school? Parents? Dances? Gym class? Best friend? If different from before why? Dreams and aspirations? Looks? Most embarrassing moment? Greatest accomplishment? Death? Driving? Job? Most unique thing about them at this time? Love? What were they most afraid of?
- What type of middle age life did your character have?
College? If aspirations/dreams/goals changed from above why? If friends changed why? How is where they went to college different from where they grew up? Job? Marriage? Sexual awareness? Friends? Parents? Death? Love? What are they most afraid of?
- How does the character view life?
What does character most fear? How does character define success? How does character see his place in his world? What did he/she want to do that he/she feels he can no longer do? What do they most regret?
- Is the character married? How did the character meet his/her spouse? How long has character been married? Is character faithful?
- How many children does the character have? Do all the children have the same mother and father? Was the character pregnant or did the character have children before marriage?
- How does the character get along with the other characters in the play?
- What is your character’s current occupation?
- Does your character like him or herself?
- Does your character have any hidden secrets?
- What is your character most proud of?
- What is your character least proud of?
- What is you character’s religious beliefs and practices?
- What does the character smell like?
- Feel free to add and answer any other questions that you wish about your character.
- Do you like the character?
How it Evolved
As I worked on more projects, I found doing the entire sheet to be an arduous task. I considered what was most helpful from past character bios and created a short version. I have bolded the questions above.
It is not labeled, maybe it should be, but numbers 1 − 12 deal with backstory and 13 − 23 during the time of the play or story. It wasn’t long before I was only answering questions 13-23 unless I had a problem with a character. Then I went deeper.
At some point, I learned character was my strength. Characters, for me, are formed instantaneously and what these questions do is allow me to capture what I already know on paper. That’s why it worked so well for me. It slowed my thoughts to word speed.
When you have multiple deadlines and three jobs, you don’t have time for a sheet like this. I stopped using it every time and would only pull it out if I was stuck or had a problem.
I seldom use this sheet today for my work, but I use it to teach character.
I often need to create many characters quickly, so I devised an intuitive process called Character Bubbles. I’ll focus on that in a future article.
Why Use The Sheet?
Why not go right to Character Bubbles? Because Character Bubbles are very specific to the way I work and very difficult for beginning writers to understand. Few established writers get it. Many look at me like I’m crazy when I explain it.
Character is personal. You can be guided, but like a quest; you need to figure it out for yourself.
Teaching Character is Tricky
Often what comes easily to a creative person is the thing they deem least important. We assign more value to what is difficult and less to what is easy. For example, if I taught auto mechanics and computer programming is easy for me, but break systems are difficult, I will most likely emphasize break systems and give short-shift to computer programming because, to me, it’s easy. This is why there are so many different views on teaching anything in the arts. There is the rare teacher who transcends this, but it is very few.
Character is easy for me, so I don’t spend a lot of time on it. It is hard for me to teach it, because I can just do it. I have to sit down and think hard about how I do it. This is how I created Character Bubbles.
I often wonder, though, if I hadn’t done the Create-a-Character pages early in my career, would character be as easy for me today? Have I always been as good at creating character or did I learn it? And the answer is, I don’t know.
When I look back at my early, early writing, it is clear I always had an ability with character only I didn’t know it. If you don’t know you have an ability, can you use it at will? I think not. This is the long explanation as to why I feel writers in the early stages of their careers can benefit from Create-a-Character. It gives writers a platform to learn how they create character.
How to use Create-a-Character
Answering every single question for every single character will not hurt you, the story or the characters. If you are just beginning, I recommend doing this. It is a lot of work, but worth it. I found it fun.
Not every question will pertain to every character based on age alone. Skip what doesn’t apply or you don’t understand. Some questions seem repetitive, if you have already covered something, skip it. Answer only those questions you think will help and stop when you feel you “know” the character.
It is worth repeating, character is personal. You will create characters according to how you see people. If you see people like I do, this will be extremely helpful; if you see them differently, you may find this doesn’t work for you.
If you find something that works, keep it and make it your own.