(Originally featured in Arizona City Independent Edition, August 21, 2002)
Have you ever read a book in which a character started with hair of one color that turned into another color along the way--without a dye job? Or a character did something that seemed, well, out of character? Problems occur when writers fail to chart character details or don't understand a character's motivations.
Writers know their fictional people are as real as those they can see, hear, and touch, only these people inhabit the writer's mind. Still, getting to know imaginary personalities is one of the more difficult tasks of writing.
When I run into problems, I turn to character charts. Index cards are handy for recording details, with one card per person, such as hair and eye color, age, height, favorite color, food, etc, or you can use a wall chart with a row of details for each character. Many of my books have casts of thousands--well, in the teens, anyway--and charts and cards are a great way to keep everybody straight. With everyone accounted for when I begin plotting, I know who's who and what I can do with them.
A detailed character reference chart with questions about a character's life is another way to make yourself understand the people who haunt your psyche. The questions following this introduction are suggestions to help you develop fictional characters. I use the chart as a guideline to develop characters, either by filling in blanks, as in a questionnaire, or by using the answers to write a character synopsis. Like most other things in writing, the form is not carved in granite.
My first chart came from an article by Colleen L. Reece in the November 1981 issue of Writer's Digest Magazine: "Just a Bunch of Words: How to Develop Believable Characters." I've added such details as religious background, type of transportation, and more psychological points, and deleted points where my answers were redundant.
You don't have to fill in all the blanks, and you won't use all the charted information in your story, but you will know your characters well. You should answer most of the questions for major characters but won't need as much data for minor characters, especially if you want to keep a plot within limits. You'll find the plot outline in your answers to the questionnaire, especially for main characters.
Feel free to use the form as is, or change it according to your needs. I'd love to hear about details you add or delete. Perhaps your input will help me revise it again.
CHARACTER REFERENCE CHART
GENERAL DESCRIPTIVE DETAILS
Age at beginning of story?
Hair color? Eye color? Complexion?
Height? Weight? Build? Posture?
Physical scars? Handicaps? Glasses? False teeth? Hearing aid, etc.?
PERSONAL AND SOCIAL BACKGROUND
Birth date? Birthplace?
Places lived in? Home at beginning of story? Places character will live or visit during story?
Religious affiliation? Devout (deeply believing) or not? Loyally observant of rituals, feasts, etc., or not?
Parents? Close or distant, physically, emotionally? Why?
Siblings? Birth order in family? Close or distant, physically, emotionally? Why?
Other family? Close or distant, physically, emotionally? Why?
Spouse? Marriage good or bad? Why?
Children? Grandchildren, etc.? Close or distant, physically, emotionally? Why?
Enemies? Why? Do they present danger (physical or emotional) to character?
Describe one or two childhood experiences that determine or explain character now. You might not use these incidents in your story, but they will help you to understand the character's motivations.
Make and color of vehicle or other transportation?
Hobbies? Kinds of music? Art? Reading material? Sports? Other pastimes?
Description and atmosphere of home? Neat? Messy? Happy? Comfortable, or not?
Habits--smokes, drinks, uses drugs (legal/illegal)?
Emotional scars, handicaps?
Strongest, weakest character traits?
Sees self as?
Is seen by others as?
Has sense of humor or not? If so, what kind?
Philosophy of life?
Most important thing to know about character?
Write a one-line characterization:
Do I like or dislike character? Why?
Will readers like or dislike character? Why?
What trait will make character come alive? Why?
Why is this character worth writing about?
Why is this character different from similar characters?
What makes this character memorable? (Characters are memorable because of some strength or extreme: saints, sinners, or interesting combinations of both.)
What does character admire in men? In women?
What quality does character react to most easily?
How does character react in extreme circumstances?
Does character see his or her own faults?
Can character grow? (Don't make a character so flawless that he or she has no room for growth.)
Are character's faults changeable?
Is character self-contained or easily influenced by outside forces?
Is character educated in worldly things or ways? Is this a positive or negative effect on his or her life and attitudes?
What are character's important experiences with sex?
Character's financial status at beginning of story? Before story begins? Financial developments during story?
Character's attitudes about money, wealth, or a lack of it?
How problem will worsen?
How problem will be resolved (positively or negatively)?
Do character and his or her problems move plot forward? Or explain something important about main character(s)?
List general comments and observations about character not covered by preceding questions.