Before you can truly tell their stories, you need to really get to know your characters. Most people might think, as their creator, you would know your characters better than anyone else. But as most writers can attest, characters are not “created” so much as they are met.
Having never taken a creative writing course in my life, I am not going to go into the technical roadmap of character development. There will be no numbered dos and don’ts list. I don’t pretend to be an expert, I just share what I learn through trial and error and try to put into layman’s terms the reasoning behind it in hopes that I might make someone else’s journey slightly smoother than my own.
If your approach to writing is anything like mine, outlining consists of a very high level summary of the story jotted down in a few sentences along with random notes of stray thoughts that can come at any given time. You have an idea of the overall concept of the project, be it a short story or novel, but there is no in depth scene by scene outline. As a “percolator” (See Pantser? Planner? Percolator? blog post) you don’t create a roadmap that you stick to when writing, but you also don’t just come up with a story and bang it out without any prior thought process.
When writing a novel, it can be quite easy to become inconsistent if you don’t have an outline. You might find yourself asking questions like “What color were Amy’s eyes again?” “Did Bob grow up in Michigan or Minnesota?” Simple questions that when you first set out to write, you have a clear and concise view of the answers to. But throw in a few more characters, a couple of locations and a plot twist or two and it can be easy to lose track of the answers that were so clear in your mind last month or even last year when you first started writing. You get so deep into the story that it can be hard to remember what happened a chapter or two earlier. And if you are writing a series, you want to be sure to keep things consistent from one book to the next, because trust me, even if you don’t notice, the readers will.
Please don’t tell me I have to create an outline, you might be pleading right about now. If you are, don’t worry, the answer is still no (at least, not for the story). What you will need to do, is create character bios. A character bio can be as simple or complex as you want it to be. The pertinent information that you should included are stats like, name, age, height, weight, eye color, etc… I would also suggest that you put anything that is important to the story line.
For example, if your character is a pro athlete and has been traded several times, you want to keep track of the various teams they played for and the years they played for those teams. If all of this information is kept in an easily accessible place, you will avoid the hassle of trying to skim back through the story to find this information again and again when doing consistency checks.
If you use a writing software like Scrivener or Celtx, they come with handy character bio templates.
|Character Sketch Template in Scrivener
|Character Profile Template in Celtx
I’m sure if you are using some other writing software, it will have a similar feature available. And for anyone that uses a word processing software like Word or WordPerfect, there are templates available for those too.
I also find it helpful to add a picture or pictures of people that fit the vision you have of the character. This can make the characters seem realer and more relatable, making the job of conveying their story easier.
When I first started writing my series, I thought that character profiles were just nice to have. But the further I got into the story lines, the more I saw their added value. Other than using the bios to keep track of stats, they can also help to remind you of the character’s personality. Would Jennifer really go sky diving if she is afraid of heights? Is it believable for Joe to profess his love for Melinda when he normally has a hard time talking about his feelings? I think you get the picture.
What are some tricks you use to get inside of your characters’ heads?