When I first started writing characters, I drew information from lists online to see what details I should record. I hope that, one day, an aspiring writer will use this list as a template too. Although said aspiring writer may run into the same problem I do, where they’re intimidated by how comprehensive and long this list is. I tend to think I’m good at characters, and part of that feeling comes from this character sheet I lay before you (or will provide a template for when I’m done typing it all up). I’ll walk you though it step by step, but feel free to leave out some of these if this looks like too much in one go. At any rate, here’s what I fill out when I’m making a character!
NAME: I use Behind the Name and Behind the Surname to find names for my characters. For example, I’m often tempted to name female characters “Perdita” because it’s based on the Latin perditus, meaning, “lost.” Isn’t that such a great starting point for a character, being lost? Try the same thing: define your character through an object or attribute or allusion, and then look for it on this site.
BOOK: What story you’re going to put this character in.
GENDER, AGE: Self-Explanatory. Try to fill this in after you do traits and details— don’t’ let these two limit your character!
GOAL: The endgame of all your character’s plans. What’s their dream? What will they get if everything goes their way?
NEEDS RIGHT NOW: Everyone has goals, but sometimes they’re too lofty or abstract or big for one story. You may have goals, but do you spend every waking moment pursuing them? No— you go after what you need right now. A way to pay rent, news on their sick friend, a hug. If you look at a character’s overall life, you can tell what their goal is. But in microcosm, characters are motivated by their most pressing need, not want.
5 LIKES, 5 DISLIKES, 5 BOTH: Your character will eventually have more than 5, of course, but these are the important ones. Try to go for a variety of things: vehicles, fonts, locations, media, animals, whatever are their favorite and least favorite things. If stuck, just look around your room, find objects, and ask, “Would she like this? Would he dislike that? Or maybe be neutral towards because I’m looking at a fucking water bottle?” Though I put this on the first page, I tend to leave this item for last. Just happens that way.
But what do I mean by ‘both’? I mean both like and dislike. Guilty pleasures, hat to loves and love to hates, the its complicateds, that kind of stuff. Say your character loves fedoras but hates iguanas— how would she feel about an iguana wearing a fedora? You put it in the ‘both’ category! But that’s a silly example. If you put, say, Bill Cosby in your character’s ‘both’ category, your character may be a champion fighting against rape culture that also loves friendly-family comedy. Or even feel the reverse! Give your character more options than “yay!” or “boo!”
5 GOOD HABITS, 5 BAD HABITS, 5 QUIRKS: Dog-gonnit, Nick, just say ‘characteristics’ like our momma taught us! No. Characters are not algorithms, always outputting the same angry or panicked reaction to everything. You can put “loudmouth” or “clean” under either characteristics or habits. But when you say ‘habits,’ it’s a reminder that character is in constant motion, and that everyone has a breaking point. He wasn’t born ‘clean,’ he learned it from an uncle that got him to sweep the floor to the rhythm of a beautiful classical waltz, and in college it became a ritual to keep him calm in stressful situations. And she may be a loudmouth around most people, but when the jerk coworker who belittles her gets promoted to her boss? Her fear wins out, and in those situations she keeps quiet. It’s never “she always says the loudmouth-type thing.” It’s “without enough resistance or pressure, she will be a loudmouth.” Character is habit, your highness— anyone who says different is selling you something.
I don’t have much new to say on quirks other than they should convey something about the character visually.
When choosing these 5, pick one of each to be the defining strength, defining weakness, and defining quirk. This is called “the cheater’s guide to building characters.” It’s also handy to remember if you want to keep your character simpler in your head. But yes, if you need a good character in 5 seconds, or just a starting point, go with the first defining strength, defining weakness, and defining quirk to come in your head.
FEAR OF: Can be existential or simple, old age or spiders. Be wary of going too off-the-wall with this, such as a fear of old spiders.
MOTIVATION: Why is your character pursuing that goal of theirs? Don’t be afraid to be simple here. A lot of geniuses and leaders, I imagine, can be traced back to a want of power or a need of love. Occasionally, I need a reminder like this. This is the spear that nudges your character forward when they’re at the crossroads, or standing in the middle of nowhere.
DEFINING CHARACTER TRAIT: I’ll teach this the way I was taught it. We all think Hermione’s a good character, right? There’s a lot to her: her refusal to believe in superstitions in a magical world, her involvement in elf-rights campaigns, skilled while still being naïve. Oh, and also that she’s badass. But if I asked you to summarize her personality in one word, what would you say? Likely, you’d say “brainiac.” Saying that doesn’t get rid of all of those other character traits, but they all support each other. And that’s what you should do with your characters: trim them down to a couple of words that will be their core, then use the complex stuff for everything revolving around that core. Don’t go into this all like, “My character is Everything and Nothing, The Moon and The Sun, SO COMPLEX YOU GUYS.” If you want your character to stand out, first you must find out what they’re standing out in comparison to. Hermione’s unique compared to other brainiacs, and yours will be too if you keep to everything on the list.
HAPPY WHERE (S)HE IS?: Is your character satisfied with their current predicament? Why?
CHANGE SITUATION?: Could you character change their predicament? Will they? Why?
WHAT (S)HE WANTS TO BE: This is similar to your character’s goal, but more concrete. If your character’s goal is to take over the world, then being a loved politician or respected general would fit well under this category. Basically, who is your character in their dreams?
WILL (S)HE GET THIS: How confident is your character in achieving this goal? Maybe they’re lazy, or fearful of their own potential, or believing that what they want is bad for them. Maybe not. Having a goal is one thing; how your character pursues it is another.
STAND FOR: If your character’s allegorical in a way— representing liberal feminism or Republicans or whatnot— then make a note here. If not, get a sense of your character’s symbolic worth in this section, even if it’s as simple as “the spirit of courage.”
CREATE OR PREVENT CHAOS: When your character enters a situation, is he or she likely to make things more chaotic or less? Is this intentional on their part?
ENDS JUSTIFY MEANS: Does your character believe that the ends justify the means?
TEACHER: Which non-parental authority figure taught your character the most? You don’t need to go into too much detail on the teacher, just what was learned.
ENEMIES: Who’s against your character? Is it big and general (the Goblin Army) or specific and small (the guy in front of her in class who never showers)? Give your character someone to complain about. And yes, putting “herself” in this slot is very clever, now try harder.
FRIENDS: What are his friends like? How does he influence them? How do they influence him? What do they all have in common? What do they go out and do together?
HYPOCRISY: I touched on this subject before, but this is why you say “habits,” not “characteristics.” Everyone has that little secret, the time they’re two-faced and refuse to show their face. If your character’s religious, and preaches for that religion, did they not troll online every Friday, or eat bacon cheeseburgers when no one’s looking? And if they have none of these, well, that’s rather suspicious, isn’t it? This is why you don’t put ‘herself’ down for enemies: here’s where you create tangible, real conflict. Everyone has themselves as an enemy.
And this post only covers ¼ of the pages I create when I make a character. Can you believe it? Don’t worry, the next few sections will be shorter. This list will not be incomplete for long! Until next time, fair reader!