Time for some more red meat!
Previously I discussed the plot structure outline I use to create a skeleton of my story, and the scene worksheets that pad out that skeleton with muscle and sinew. I have several entries in my scene worksheets dedicated to primary POV character, secondary character, and motivation. This provides a very poor space to flesh out a character, however, and towards that end I have created a second spreadsheet dedicated entirely to character development.
They aren’t small. In fact, they’re embarrassingly large.
I’m going to take four blog posts and walk through each page of my character worksheets, because it’s simply too much to tackle in one go. I’ve pieced together the information on these sheets from various sources: classes, teachers, websites, theory books. The information is somewhat exhaustive, and to be honest, I don’t always fill in every blank, particularly for secondary characters.
The first page is dedicated to the vital stats and the character’s role within the story. Here’s a close-up:
That image is a little hard to read, so here’s the breakdown:
Character (Name:) This should be pretty self-explanatory. In fantasy and science fiction, this might merit some consideration. I like to try to avoid pulpy character names such as “Dirk Masterson” or “Stafford Manchisel”. My secret weapon for finding realistic character names? Online phone directories for public servants.
Book Title: In case you get confused.
Age/Gender/Eye Color/Hair Color/Hair Length: The minutia of your character’s physical description may seem trivial, but specific concrete details only help to ground the character in your mind, and the more real the character is to you, the better chance the character will materialize in the mind of the reader.
Race/Complexion: Not only do I specify my character’s ethnicity, I narrow it down to the skin tone. I like to strive for diversity in my casts of characters, mostly because the world is diverse, but also because it makes for a more interesting story.
Build: There are endless ways to describe a human body, and usually the words we have chosen indicate our subconscious views of the character. If we describe the protagonist as “thin”, we must stop to ask “as compared to what?” Are we implying some kind of deficiency? If we choose “emaciated”, we hint at illness or weakness. If we choose “trim”, we hint at vibrancy and athleticism.
Most Striking Physical Feature: Now we start to dig into the meat. Most of the information I provide in this worksheet never actually makes it to the novel. It’s largely unnecessary, and serves mostly to provide the subtle backgrounds and biases that readers prefer to receive via titillating, subliminal methods. In a First Person P.O.V., describing the narrator can become a challenge. Some resort to cliche (looking at a mirror). I prefer to skip physical descriptions when the character is the narrator. For everyone else, there is one physical feature that stands out, and this feature is almost always how I introduce a character for the first time. It could be “Carmen with her waist-length raven black hair”, or “the salt-and-pepper stubble on Edgar’s broad chin”.
Role: Is this character the protagonist? Antagonist? Reflection of the protagonist? Reflection of the antagonist? Love interest? Mentor? Mentor’s love interest? The pool boy that the antagonist’s reflection likes to diddle on the side?
Wound: One of the most formative tidbits of advice I received from Orson Scott Card was this: “Always give your character a wound that will not heal.” What is your character’s wound? Define that wound, and you will discover a wealth of conflict.
Character Flaw: No one is perfect. Find at least one specific flaw for your character. It could be a tic, a nervous complaint, a bad habit, a psychosis, or even a considerably destructive outlook. This is distinct from the Wound, in that a flaw is generally part of the character’s personality, whereas the Wound is something that was inflicted upon the character.
Character Goal (What Character Wants): And we’ve come upon the GMC… Goal, Motivation, Conflict. I like to define GMC as “What the character wants, why she wants it, and what’s standing in the way.” Every character must have a goal, not necessarily related to the plot (unless this is the protagonist, in which case it ought to be the plot).
Character Motivation (Why S/he Wants It): What’s driving the character towards this goal? This must be strongly defined and feasible, or the reader won’t buy it.
External Conflict: This should be a mechanical obstacle, the literal physical reason the character cannot achieve the goal.
Internal Conflict: Very often we are our greatest enemy. What is going on inside the character’s head that is creating a psychological obstacle to achieving the goal? The distinction between the External and Internal Conflict is the difference between “Sheila’s mother-in-law is driving a wedge between Sheila and her husband,” and “Sheila’s mother-in-law reminds Sheila of her own abusive mother whom she has never forgiven”.
Major Relationships with Other Characters: Here is the chance to quickly define the other major relationships with characters in the story. If there’s a love interest, list him here. If there is a mentor, here you go. Note: for every character mentioned in this spot, you should create a worksheet for that character as well.
That’s enough for one blog post. Next time I’ll go into Personality… hopes, fears, even fetishes!