You cannot overestimate importance of well-carved characters in the story.
As everywhere, there are exceptions: sometimes, like in parodies, you’ll intentionally make a story around stereotypes. But in most of cases, you’ll want a set of convincing characters.
You’ll keep notes about your characters more or less organized. Those notes are called character sheets. Here is a guide for making character sheet that I’ve takes from the book of Andrew Horton, “Writing the character-centered screenplay” are adjusted it to my needs, all issues and questions that you should answer to before your character is created:
character sheet template
a. Time and place of birth
b. Parents. Their race/ethnic/social/economical origins
c. Same data about eventual brothers and sisters, relevant cousins.
d. Structure of family and family life;
e. Relations of character with his parents, brothers, sisters
(Note: If you make your character an orphan that never got to meet their family and have nobody in entire world, like lots of webcomic writers do, it will be much harder to carve that character successfully, than putting them on a blank background, which previous cliché basically is – no matter what horrible events and traumas related to the lack of family you put in their past)
b. Physical abilities/disabilities
c. Race/ethical origins; Religion.
d. Socio-economical status
e. Place of living. How does the place of living impact your character?
3. Basic characteristics
a. Is it mainly positive, negative or neutral character?
b. Introvert or extrovert
c. More or less emotional
d. More or less intellectual (usually opposed to emotional)
e. More or less perceptive
f. More or less self-centered?
g. Life/career/personal goals
h. Basic personal struggle of the character
i. Is he a mother/father?
(sometimes, writers will divide characters in such groups as: victim/predator/savior or melancholic/coleric/flegmatic/sanguinic. I don’t necessarily agree, but if that makes your writing easier, you may use such categorization)
a. Personal look
b. Clothes. What do clothes tell about the character
c. Food and drink likes/dislikes
d. Education and knowledge
f. Fears (possibly phobias, but also common, everyday fears)
g. Activities that character likes/dislikes
h. Secrets, obsessions, fantasies
i. Closest friends
j. Personal view on self, others, friendship, sex, love, family, marriage, country, religion, ideology and such issues
k. Sense of humor. What does the character find funny?
5. Professional/public life
a. Job and career
b. Respect in the eyes of society
c. Clubs and organizations he belongs to
d. Public aims and goals
a. Conservative/liberal/radical etc.
b. Which matters, that are not directly related to the character, is he seriously concerned about?
c. Circumstances in which your character would do something out of character?
d. Involvement with alcohol, drugs?
e. Lonely person? Family type? Type for life in couple?
f. Favourite music, TV program, film?
g. Phrase he uses the most. Way of talk, accent.
h. Reactions of your character in such hypothetical situations as:
• Winning million dollars
• Death in family
• Life danger. Perhaps natural disaster, like tornado/earthquake
• Being fired
• Meeting an old friend he hasn’t seen for ages
• Blind date
• Getting a kid/raising a kid
• Being violated
• Being complimented
• Having a bad luck stroke, like flat tire
• Being on TV
That’s definitely one detailed character sheet. Of course, you cannot always fill all those, sometimes you’ll even be lazy to do it, but the more you do, the more you will know about your character. A reader shouldn’t know most of this, the list is only for your writer’s reference. Feeding reader with so much data about character will make a story boring, with lots of necessary and uninteresting data.
While we’re at that, don’t try to make your character exotic. Don’t make every little bit of his life adventure. Just because you have to fill in what’s his/her favourite food, that doesn’t have to be something as exotic as frog’s legs. It could be hamburger as well. Similarly, a person doesn’t have to come from broken family with lots of traumas from childhood to grow up into violent or even evil person. More likely, little details, like liking red colour or fantasy of being basketball player, will add your character solidity.
Later in this tutorial, I will actually disapprove going strictly according to this list. However, when starting, such lists are very useful. Through them, you get to know your character.
Character sheet will usually be supported by character’s look, done by artist, from various positions and angles, and all peculiar details.
When coming up with a story, you will think of reality more or less. Sometimes, you’ll even want to escape from reality as much as you can. But in my opinion, one part of writing job where you have to be as realistic as possible, is characterization. You have to draw your characters from real life.
That doesn’t mean that you should base your characters strictly on people you know or yourself. On contrary, that might make monotony, because your more or less close friends are still similar to some extent, and we don’t want our characters to be similar. By drawing characters from real life, I mean using experiences from real life. Look around you, be observing about people you meet, get to know basic rules of psychological and social life of a person. The worst thing you can do is, drawing your characters from movies and comics. Movies and comics are, to put it directly, full of crap. Characters are full of stereotypes, idolized or extremely atrocious, and they are in no way good look-upon. Characters from real life are not a bit less interesting from those in movies and comics, they are just usually placed in less interesting situations (but that is debatable too). And we all know people so there’s enough material for observation.
Another dangerous ground is basing all characters on yourself. How likely is it that all people have same doubts and dilemmas, same likes and dislikes, same goals? The extreme of this habit that I’ve seen is entire set of characters in a story, people of different likes, ages, origins, who like exactly the same music. Which is, incidentally, the same music writer likes. So a part of observing people includes noticing how those people are different from you.
Writers use a term “thousand voices” to express the complexity of human character.
No matter how long your character sheet is, no matter how many and how detailed hypothetical situations you work out, you still won’t get a hold of one average human mind. Psychologists examine human mind all their life, they examine one particular human for years – yet they are not able to predict every reaction of that human.
Why? On one hand, there is “thousand voices” talking in someone’s hand, all experiences in one’s life, each one without exception talking part in shaping of the personality. That’s why sticking strictly to a character sheet, no matter how long, makes your character only half-convincing.
This can be explained with these pictures: I will represent a relatively simple story character by a closed circle: This character is ridden by only what’s happening in the story and things that reader knows are his only motivations.
On a third picture, outer frame is open too. Character is open for influences that not even writer know about.
Why? Well, because, as soon as you explain every aspect of someone’s personality, motivate every action of his, there is no magic in this character anymore. It’s not realistic anymore. You limited voices in its head, rounded them up in circle.
Instead, sometimes just let it be. After all, if there is some dark trauma in someone’s past, doesn’t it seem more terrible while it is still untold? Just as the monster from the horror movie isn’t that scary anymore once you see it in full frontal, some things, when finally revealed, seem small and disappointing. At the end, you may take that chaos affects human mind a lot. Not every action of ours can be explained. So don’t try to explain everything.
On the other hand, character changes through everything that’s happening, especially if it’s some extreme experiences like adventure or action stories usually are. They are dynamic, not static categories.
How to balance strictness of character sheet and “thousand voices”? Well, you shouldn’t forget character sheet. Character will act according to it in most of situations, especially usual, everyday situations. But from time to time, “a voice out of the frame” must speak and then character will act out of character.
This may seem hard at first, but in my opinion, it’s actually making writing easier. Sometimes you’ll find contradiction between character sheet and conceived story. Sometimes, your character will, according to story, have to do something that’s contradicting his character sheet. You can see how “thousand voices” can help in this situation.
Another usual mistake of writers is making characterisation too black and white. That means that characters will be either too negative or too positive, as seen on picture:
If characters are too simplified, it’s easy to make such mistake. But if you’re conceiving your character based on a large character sheet, plus a thousand voices in his head, there is no excuse in making every single characteristic from character his sheet and every single voice in his head negative with a negative character, or positive with a positive character.
Sometimes, it’s a big help just inserting one good characteristic to a negative character, and one bad characteristic to a positive character. Such small act makes your characters more convincing, live-like.
There is one more issue I feel obligate to mention. Under the term of “hero”, we usually imply a main character of the story. Also, it implies strong, moral, compassionate character that helps others in trouble. He’s usually a loner, a person who seeks for adventure and accepts it ready on time. We could say that this is antic Greek type of hero, and call Ulysses it’s archetype. Such are most of characters from mythology, such is lonesome cowboy from westerns, such is Arnold Schwarzenegger from the film “Eraser”.