Tools for Pre-writing: Character Worksheet Part 3

Page Three of my character worksheet begins to needle into the minor details of the character, primarily the speech patterns and physical trappings which help in forming a mental picture of the character.  At this point in the planning process, I begin to skimp to a degree if I’m not dealing with a major character. But for my protagonist and antagonist, I do my level best to fill in every blank. Remembering of course that none of it is immutable, and will likely be overwritten by the time the manuscript is complete.

Here’s the third page:

The value of the Speech and Mannerisms section is felt mostly in dialogue. Prior to making your choices for this section, go out in public and listen to real speech for a while. For The Curse Merchant, I actually filled out my character worksheets while sitting in the middle of a crowded community college cafeteria (I see the alliteration fairy is earning her pay this morning). Writing believable dialogue can be a challenge, but I find that filling in this worksheet can help keep my characters speaking at the level that I have intended for them.

SPEECH & MANNERISMS

Three Favorite Idioms/Expressions: In your prose, you should absolutely strive to limit the use of cliche and idiomatic expression. However, in your characters’ dialogue, idioms can and should present themselves. Define three idioms or expressions that the character tends to use, even over-use. Consider the personality of the character when making these choices, as they can serve to subconsciously remind you, and the reader, of the character’s mindset.

Three Favorite Words: I am a big believer in the psychological component of speech. Our diction carries hidden clues toward our personality. Choose three weighted words, keywords if you will, that may or may not pop up repeatedly in the character’s speech. Again, choose your words carefully, with respect to the character’s personality.

Most Used Vocal Pause: I don’t condone heavy use of vocal pauses within written dialogue. Even though dialogue is meant to be organic, it should never become distracting. Beginning every spoken sentence with “Uh, yeah.” or “So, um…” can become tiresome. However, this shouldn’t preclude the occasional use of vocal pauses, particularly during moments when you, as the author, have pulled the rug from underneath your character’s feet. In an effort to keep the characters distinct and identifiable within your manuscript, attempt to keep the chosen vocal pauses unique to each character. If your protagonist says “uh”, be sure the love interest says “hmm.”

Describe Vocal Tone: Just as knowing your character’s appearance helps to solidify the character for the mind’s eye, knowing the precise tone of your character’s voice will be equally formative for the mind’s ear. The description of vocal tone may often enter into the manuscript upon first hearing the character speak. Hint: I often cheat and describe a vocal tone simply by typing in an actor’s name. Wilford Brimley and Gilbert Gottfried have very different vocal tones.

Nervous Tic: Here we enter the realm of mannerism. Everyone has some type of “business” that is subconscious, yet often obvious (even annoying) to those surrounding us. Tapping a pen, clicking teeth, playing with hair, cracking knuckles, clearing the throat… these are actions that communicate anxiety, boredom, impatience. All by showing instead of telling. They also help to pace out a dialogue-heavy scene to give a moment’s pause for the reader.

Bad Habit: Beyond physical business, everyone has at least one bad habit. Poor dental hygiene, dirty laundry, bad accounting, procrastination. Go ahead and define a bad habit for each character. This is especially useful for virtuous protagonists or love interests who have a tendency to sublimate beyond the reader’s ability to empathize.

Good Habit: Not everything is nose picking and knuckle cracking. Just as virtuous characters require some manner of grounding, the more nefarious “heavies” in our plots often benefit from a humanizing element. Let them keep a spotless kitchen. Keep them on top of their bookkeeping. These habit entries are a kind of reflection of the Vice/Virtue entries in the previous page of the character worksheet, the distinction being that these habits should be mannerisms… mundane physical activities.

WARDROBE

Casual Attire/Work Clothes: For no particular reason, I tend to obsess on character wardrobe. Define a “typical” ensemble for day-to-day wear, and work attire. Whether these details enter into your manuscript is entirely up to the story itself. It must benefit the story, forward the character, or otherwise be beneficial to the reader. Otherwise it becomes verbal chaff. However, there is something to be said for implying a character’s personality via wardrobe versus straight exposition. The difference being “she was a quirky undergrad” and “she wore a poodle skirt, combat boots, and a Flogging Molly t-shirt”.

Favorite Shoes: There are entire schools of thought dedicated to the connection between personality and one’s shoes. If not, then there ought to be.

Sleepwear: Clearly important for steamy romance novels, but very often a middle-of-the-night scene will present itself, and should the character go sprinting into the night, it would be beneficial to know if she sleeps in the nude before the police catch up with her.

Underwear: Boxers or briefs. It may seem silly, but one’s choice in underwear can communicate elements of personality. When you find the woman wearing a leopard print bra-and-panty set undressing in front of the tax accountant wearing tighty-whiteys, the sexual dynamic rather presents itself.

Make-up: Bold emphasis on the eyes? Blood-red lipstick? Nothing but foundation? No make-up at all? Create in your mind a firm impression of the character, and as she develops throughout the story feel free to play with the choice of make-up, as the face she puts forward to the world tells a lot about the character.

Typical Accessories: The bracelets, necklaces, earrings, watches, wallets, belt buckles, and even the glasses frames find their way into the business of dialogue. Be sure to nail down exactly what the character is wearing, and keep it consistent within the scene!

Next time, we will conclude this exploration of character worksheets by creating the character’s personal history and resume.

3 responses to “Tools for Pre-writing: Character Worksheet Part 3

  1. Pingback: #MyWritingProcess Blog Hop | J.P.Sloan's Fistful of Fiction

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