Are you a planner or a pantser when it comes to writing?
My initial inclination is to be a pantser. I begin with a character or a moment and then the story is as much of a surprise to me as it is to my reader.
However, writing by the seat of my pants comes with some drawbacks. I might sometimes forget details about where a character is from, or which side is the bad leg, or untold number of other details. At which point, a reader is liable to tell me, “Wait, I thought So-and-so was from here.”
So I have learned to be a bit more of a planner when it comes to my character development. I’ve created a character details and development sheet which helps me solidify my character’s visuals and personality quirks.
Besides using this in my own writing, my students have used this in my classroom and in the creative writing club. The majority of students have said that this really helps them get a more defined visual in their head for what they want their character to be like.
The character details and development sheet is divided into four sections: The Basics, Background Info, Personality & Development, and Sidekick.
I’ll post the PDF here and at the bottom. The PDF includes the blank template and a completed example.
For the basics of the character, I like to decide on the name, hair color & style, eye color, height, body type, age during the story/flashbacks, character birth and death times, and perhaps the astrological sign. When you are jotting down the basics of your character, you are also outlining the skeletal bones of your world.
By choosing the character name, you are setting the standard for the type of names that may appear in your narrative. Do you have normal names? Names from a generation ago? Names inspired by a different culture? Alien names? By choosing the physical features of your character, you are also setting a standard. And of course, if this character is unique, you are choosing what is considered “abnormal” in this fictional world.
By including details such as when the character was born, will die, and his or her astrological sign, you can also make decisions about the world and the plot. Does your character know his or her birth date? Will this character die (and if so, is there a potential for revival or becoming a ghost)? With the choice to include an astrological sign, you get to decide if you are going to base this story in our current world with the current constellations and signs, if the story is set in the future and the stars have changed, or is it a different planet with different mythology and star stories?
For the background information of the character, I like to decide on the family members for the character, whether they are still living or not, their main personality trait, and how they help the plot move along. Additionally, I decide on the character’s ethnicity or race, hometown location, educational background (or lack thereof), their current and future occupation, and how these help the plot advance.
Deciding on the family structure allows you to establish how much familial support your character has as he or she reaches obstacles. Or you decide that the character doesn’t have family and must rely on friends, or that parts of the family are in fact the antagonists.
By choosing the ethnicity or race of the character, you choose some of the struggles and discrimination that the character will need to overcome.
When determining where your character is geographically from, you establish a few things. Is your character from a rich town? Poor town? Mining town? The Jungle? Is your character still there or is your character attempting to function in an environment alien to him or her? Has something apocalyptic happened and the character must learn how to survive in an altered hometown or does the character need to set out on a journey?
The educational background of a character can also be important. Has the character been privileged or disadvantaged? Is this a coming-of-age story where they will be in a new academic setting (Many YA books have an academy or school setting)?
The occupation, both current and future, of your character is vital. What is your character currently doing with his or her life at the beginning of the story? Do they get noticed because of an event at his or her job? Is the character trying to find a new job? Does the character get assigned to an unexpected occupation that is important to the plot? Does your character develop a skill that allows him or her to have an unexpected or important occupation?
Personality and Development
For the personality and development section, I like to decide on how I would describe the typical clothing style of the character, favorite outfits, personal items or accessories that are important to the plot, the likes and dislikes of the character, dominant personality traits (both positive and negative), personal goals, personal quirks or habits, and the future outcome of the character.
During the exposition of a story, you are likely to describe something about the way that your character appears so that readers gain a visual image. You will need to decide if your character’s clothes are going to be dapper, pragmatic, or ostentatious. What are the character’s go-to clothes? Does the character dress for comfort, for battle, or for impressing others? Build a mental closet for your character and the events he or she might encounter.
Along with the clothes and descriptions of how the character dresses, you might want to decide on what personal item the character has that is of great sentimental value or is a key to some plot event or advancement. This might be a necklace inherited from a family member, a book that turns out to be a key to a different dimension, or Cinderella’s glass slippers.
What does your character like and dislike doing? Chances are that the character will be skilled or develop skills in what he or she likes doing, and will have weaknesses or vulnerabilities to what he or she dislikes. Or this could be as off the wall as “dislikes being mistaken for a demon,” in which case, you should figure out how this works into the the plotline or events that are on the horizon for this character.
Determining the dominant positive and negative personality traits will also help you establish more of your plotline and events. For the dominant negative traits, is your character impulsive or stubborn? How does this create an event or trouble for the character? And how does the dominant positive traits help the character emerge from events safely or victoriously?
When you determine the character’s personal goals, you are reinforcing the personality and the plotline. A personal goal might be to earn enough money to pay off the medical debt of a parent or sibling. This reinforces that the character thinks of others and wants to help. This might lead the character to get a job at a nightclub where… dun dun dunn! Something is about to happen.
Because we are all human, we all have weird habits, quirks, or flaws. Let’s face it, the perfect characters are boring. So give your character a weird quirk or habit. Maybe your character bites his or her nails. Maybe your character is a bit obsessive about the amount of supplies he or she carries around. Is he or she a night owl? Does the character like to wear profane graphic t-shirts? When imagining your character, make him or her real and not a 3D cardboard cutout.
And finally, this is the part that hurts my pantser soul, but you should decide what will ultimately happen to your character. Is your character going to win? Win but die? Win but become a crippled soul? Destroy the fabric of time and need to start over?
Don’t worry, if your character decides to tell you one thing and then eventually do another, that is perfectly okay, and it satisfies the pantser in me.
Every character deserves a sidekick, friend, informant, or someone who lends a bit of aid on the road to… wherever the character is going.
Go ahead and decide the name of this side character (bonus points if the name is a pun or relevant to the plot). Create a brief description of the side character and his or her quirks (feel free to go back up to the basics and background to get ideas of what you can jot down here).
The most important thing with a sidekick is that you need to decide how this character will either help or hinder the main character.
Tell Me What You Think!
Tell me what you think! When you create your characters, do you write down these kinds of details? What other kinds of details do you include that I didn’t?
Do you think you will use this in your own writing? Will you use it in your classroom?
Feel free to click on the PDF link below to get the blank template and a completed example.