Sketching Out Your Characters
As you formulate the plot and main characters of your novel, start jotting down info on your protagonist and other important characters, and keep filling it in as ideas occur to you. This way, you can get to know them so well that, when they’re thrown into the thick of the action or interacting with others, you won’t need to wonder how they’d act or what they’d say in various situations — you’ll already have a good handle on their background, personality, strengths, weaknesses, preferences, fears, and goals in life.
Readers are quick to judge if they think a fictional person is acting “out of character” or inconsistently with their upbringing or personality.
Here’s a checklist to guide you in brainstorming and creating your main character’s personality and background. Of course, their habits will need to fit their personality profile — a careful, precise person wouldn’t have a messy office, for example.
A. The Basics
- Name — and as you go along, does it still fit the character? If not, you can always change it later, as you get to know him/her better. (See my post “What’s in a Name? Naming Your Characters.”)
- Gender, age and education
- Occupation/Profession, and how they feel about it
- Physical attributes: Maybe find a photo online or in a magazine that best represents your protagonist, and keep it handy it as a quick reference. Also, how they feel about their height, weight, hair, etc.
- Where they grew up. A character raised in the Deep South will be quite different from one raised in Idaho, California, Montana or New York City.
- Socio-economic status of their family as they were growing up. Were they struggling or privileged?
- Family background: Happy or unhappy? Only child or lots of siblings? Loving or absentee parents? Sibling rivalry? Adopted? Orphaned?
- Highlights from childhood: Anything that stands out that has affected them, either positively or negatively.
- Past significant relationships or marriage(s), and how they affect their present outlook.
C. Personality and Character
- Personality: outgoing or shy, lighthearted or serious, tactful or outspoken, laid-back or hyper/workaholic, neat or messy, etc. Also include any interesting personality quirks.
- Hopes, dreams, goals: What does this character really want in life?
- Strengths and talents: What is he or she most proud of?
- Any strong feelings or attitude(s) towards causes, people, politics, etc.
- Insecurities and perceived weaknesses — maybe they grew up in a rural area and feel out of their depth in the city, or wish they could cook or dance better, or were fitter or more outgoing.
- Any other points of vulnerability, flaws or weaknesses that work against them
- Biggest fears, phobias and disappointments, especially secret ones
- Biggest “baggage” to date — unresolved problems and issues from the past that still affect his/her attitudes and reactions today
- What others think of this character
D. Other significant people in their life
- Best friends, close family members, and other supporting characters, and their role in relationship to protagonist
- Any enemies or irritating acquaintances
E. Interests, hobbies, likes and dislikes
- Favorite leisure activities, hobbies, sports, TV shows, movies, books, etc.
- Any special strengths or talents, now and earlier, in school or college
- Likes and dislikes: cooking, housecleaning, exercising, socializing, crowds, etc.
F. Their surroundings
- A description of his or her current living and working conditions — home, workplace. Neat or messy? Sparse or cluttered? Elegant or thrown together?
- Most treasured possessions, and why?
Now you should have a good handle on your main character, so you’ll be able to quickly decide how he or she would react in any given situation you throw at them. As you’re writing, you may find this character’s personality is changing, or you might think of more interests, strengths, phobias, or personality quirks — just add/change them to your character sketch as you go along. Another good trick is to write some journal entries from your character’s point of view, in response to events in the novel. That will also help you to develop and fine-tune this character’s unique “voice.”
Guest blogger Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction manuscript editor, specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries, romance, YA, and historical fiction. Jodie’s services range from developmental and substantive editing to light final copy editing and proofreading, as well as manuscript critiques. Check out Jodie’s website at http://www.jodierennerediting.com/ and her blog, dedicated to advice and resources for fiction writers, at http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/.
Posted by Maryann Miller who loves discovering new things about her characters.