February 14, 2014 by Ray Yanek
One of my biggest insecurities when it comes to writing is my ability to create interesting and 3-dimensional characters. Over the years, to combat those insecurities, I have, like thousands of other upstart writers, scoured character creation sheets, forms, questionnaires and anything that I thought would help me get better.
But I usually quit halfway through those activities. Sure, they helped me discover my
character’s 3rd grade crush, the names of their childhood pets, what size shoe they wore and, finally, whether they prefer boxers or briefs, thongs or granny panties. All interesting stuff (especially the part about the thongs) but it felt incomplete, like something was missing, like I was still looking at cardboard cutouts rather than real people. So I swore off of character creations sheets and questionnaires cold turkey and never looked back…
Until a few years ago when I heard author and professor Karen Lee Boren speak at the Millikin University High School Literary Festival.
She put me back onto the character sheet and I borrowed a lot of items from her exercise, sprinkled in some of the other questions and categories I’ve read over the years, and spiced it up with questions of my own creation and put together a method of creating characters that I’m happy with. I use this sheet in my own writing and I teach it to my juniors and seniors in my Creative Writing classes. Not only does it help creating the characters, but it also helps in creating the story around those characters.
Maybe you can do something with it as well.
Part I: The Basics
1.) Name: Age:
2.) Physical Description:
3.) Where does character live? What kind of dwelling?
4.) What does character do for a living?
5.) How does the character dress?
6.) What are the specific mannerisms of the character? Is there a reason for these mannerisms?
7.) Does the character have a family?
9.) Favorite pastimes?
12.) Why does the character enjoy 8-10 above?
A group of students, for example, created a young character who lived in a worn-torn African village. This young character was responsible for taking care of,and providing for, his siblings as his mother was dead and the identity of his father was unknown. The character was forced to beg so that he could provide for his family. All of these details spawned from these simple questions because my students weren’t satisfied with simple questions. They were using them as starting points to leap into bigger ideas.
Part II: Getting Deeper
13.) What is the character’s strongest positive personality trait?
14.) What is the character’s strongest negative personality trait?
15.) What is the character’s opinion of him or herself?
16.) How would other characters view him/her?
17.) What are the character’s main ambitions in life? Why?
18.) What would the character say is his/her greatest dream?
19.) What would the character say is his/her greatest fear?
20.) What kind of person does he wish he could be? What is stopping him from being that person?
These are the questions where you’ll begin to see not just a ‘character’, but a person
coming to life. This is also the spot where, if you’re using this in a classroom, you can start to work in some of those teachable moments.
Starting with questions 13 and 14, the students and I discuss the fact that in fiction (just as in real-life) people are never absolutely evil or absolutely good. Unless we’re talking about pre- George RR. Martin epic fantasy, people are a mixture of both light and dark, good and bad. Often times, the good and the bad inside of us tend to spawn off of one another.
Going back to the character of the young African man, my students found, based on his actions that he is extremely caring and selfless. Because he is forced to put his own life aside in order to take care of his siblings though, he’s also bitter and resentful. Light and dark; Dark and light. Also, although others in the village see our character as a good man for what he does for his family, he himself feels as a fraud because of that bitterness and resentment he feels inside. Already, we should be able to see internal conflict brewing with this character.
Further, our young man, despite his lot in life, still has dreams and hopes. As he lays in bed at night, he hopes and dreams of the day where he can find some sort of success, keep the family together and provide for them while still finding some sort of happiness for himself. To be more specific regarding what this success and happiness is, perhaps we could go back to that first batch of questions and take a look at our character’s hobbies or past times and have him dream about turning the things he loves into a way to make money.
But as our character lies in bed as well, there are fears that haunt his dreams. He has seen so many people die and fears that he may be next, that he may die and leave his siblings all alone.
Part III: Rounding it Out
21.) What is the biggest secret the character holds?
22.) What is the one big thing going on that the character doesn’t know about?
23.) What would the character say is the most terrible thing that has ever happened to him in his life?
24.) The best?
I should have said at the beginning that ordering of these questions really isnt’ t that important. You could easily change the order as you feel comfortable. If you keep questions 23 and 24 in this order though, the instances and memories could be created based on the effects they have already had on the character. In the case of our young man, obviously the most terrible thing that would happen to him would be the death of his mother, which then lead to all of those personality traits above.
But remember too, that it’s okay to play with the obvious and to play with expectations and initial thoughts. What if, for some reason, the death of his mother was the best thing that happened to him? Was she violent? Abusive? Stealing from the family to support some sort of habit? Secretly involved with the opposition? The possibilities are endless, but you should be able to see at this point, how these different possibilities open different doors to different stories and levels of our characters.
If you’re using this in a classroom, this could also turn into a lesson on cohesion, as these traits should logically flow from the other ones.
The questions about the secrets often intrigue my students the most, as I suppose secrets are wont to do. People keep secrets for various reasons but in some cases it’s because if people found out our secrets irreparable harm could result to our reputation or character. In other cases, our secrets could sometimes hurt the one’s we love. Our secrets, in many cases, spawn from our fears.
Step IV: Going Larger
25.) How would you describe the character’s outlook on life?
26.) In what situations would your character become violent?
27.) In what situations would your character become heroic?
This is also a great place to have students think about their own outlooks and where these outlooks may come from.
Every one goes about these creation processes in different ways and the methods we like the best are determined by who we are, how we learn, etc. But for me, the above character questionnaire is the best method I’ve come across for pulling characters out of thin air and it’s provided me with a lot of interesting classroom discussions..
I like the depth it provides, and I also like how the questions help keep the character consistent as, if done properly, each element should grow organically from the other. The sheet shows me story possibilities as well. If you go back and look at the example above, we could easily put together a handful of stories that would stretch this character and make us fall in love with him. We could also use his fears and dreams in diabolical ways to put the reader on the edge.
But again, everyone goes about the act of creation differently, and I would love to know any cool trick or methods that you use.
Drop me a note in the comments below and we can talk