And now we come to the finish line of this marathon of character-creating industry. The fourth page of my character worksheet is dedicated to backstory, the history of the character. This page acts as a kind of resume, a curriculum vitae if you will (assuming the position being applied for requires a bizarrely intrusive exploration of relationships and motivations).
Here’s the page:
Fair warning: of the entire character creation worksheet, I skimp the most on this particular section. All of the information is achievable, but I find that though this information truly rounds-out a character, it most often fails to make the “final cut” of the manuscript. Not that it isn’t worth pursuing, but if you’re going to cheat, this would be the place.
Current Address/Hometown: This is the basic information, useful in nailing down the exact location of your character, as well as the character’s built-in filter of the world. A protagonist from Iowa will have a profoundly different view of the invading alien fleet than would the protagonist from Dubai.
Description of Residence: This is useful in keeping the details straight throughout your story. Does your character’s home have two stories and a basement, or just one story and a basement? Is it a red brick or a white siding home? Is it a mud hovel with a thatch roof, or a log cabin?
Family: Here, I progress through the basic family relationships, asking for names and professions. Names of family members, even those who do not appear in the story, become useful in keeping the character’s full history alive. In The Curse Merchant, my protagonist had an Aunt that become so compelling that she worked her way closer to the front of the plot, until she managed to find a place in my plans for a sequel.
Schooling: So many of our early relationship are developed in school, as is our world view. Is the character a high school dropout? Did she receive parochial schooling? Does he have an advanced degree, and if so, is it appropriate for the story?
Employment: Likewise, the character’s skill sets have been honed in some manner prior to the beginning of the story. If the protagonist is school-aged, this many be left largely untouched. But what kind of biases come with having held certain positions? Is the antagonist averse to tipping? Does this annoy the protagonist who put herself through college as a waitress? This is a quick and easy way to build empathy and antipathy.
Relationship: Here I explore the character’s recent relationships. Assuming there is a Significant Other of some definition at play in the story, I’ll briefly define their status: girlfriend, fiancee, mistress, etc. The most recent relationship often interferes with the current relationship in some manner, so it is worth defining here as well… and may even provide an interesting secondary character. Then there is the Best Friend, however that character defines it. Some characters (villains, in particular) may not have an entry for Best Friend, as they are horrible, horrible people. And yet, if they are people, what are the odds that someone considers them a friend on some level? It’s worth exploring towards creating three-dimensional characters.
Describe Relationship with Parents: The single most formative influence on our world view are our parents. They defined our views of the opposite sex, the same sex, and of how families interact. They give us our first creeds, our moral compass, our religion, and our political views. When these things change as we grow older and independent, we may find we view our parents in an entirely new light. Or, we may grow to become carbon copies of our parents. The relationship of your character with her parents (living or dead, which is also worth noting) is a tremendous source of character bias and emotional development.
Describe Relationship with Best Friend: Very often the protagonist’s best friend acts as a reflection character for the protagonist, a character which has similar views or upbringing, but for one decision or twist of fate follows a different path than the protagonist. Explore the “what ifs” between the friends. How are they different? How do they serve one another as friends? This character is likely to receive his or her own character sheet.
How Has the Places Influenced the Character: If the white cop grew up in the Deep South during the 1950’s, that character might have a different view of his new black partner than would a character that grew up in Detroit. Did Princess Rowena of Planet Lesbosia really just give Captain Sarah Womanshield a lingering hug because she’s just friendly like that? We are products of our environment. Define how the character’s various environments influences the character’s world view.
Fondest Memory: I particularly adore this entry. When the plot gets tough… and it will get tough (if it’s interesting)… the character will experience a transformation. What is the bright memory that your character clings to during the Black Moment of the monomyth? Why is this a fond memory? Is it a trip with her parents to the ballet? What does this say about her current relationship with her daughter? Is it the day the hero’s father gave him his first sword? What has become of that sword, or his father for that matter? So often as a writer, I find that the fondest memories are defined by darkness. A memory is cherished due to its absence. Explore this fond memory, the pain of the character’s present, and the connection between the two.
And celebrate, because you’re done with the character worksheet! Now, make one for each of the other major characters.
I was asked if I would share my Excel templates with others who may find them useful. Whereas the Character Worksheet is something I cooked up on my own, the Scene Worksheet is the creation of another author, Meredith Bond. And as she uses this worksheet as part of a writing course, I feel it’s largely inappropriate to share it. I have however uploaded both the Character Worksheet to Google Docs. Here is the link:
Thanks for following along… this has been a long series of posts filled with writing theory. Thus, for the next few posts I fully intend on lightening the mood with a little personal discourse and some thoughts on the elements of my current projects.