Cover photo by Greta Rybus
In writing fiction, I often don’t understand where the material comes from: the story is a strange stew of imagination, memory, and research. While letting go and letting the writing do its thing works the majority of the time, I’ve found with characters a certain amount of deliberate design helps facilitate dimensionality and diversity for a book’s cast.
In a previous Salt & Ink post, I write about the importance of spending time off the page with characters to get to know them better. For me, this involves a notebook and pen and free writing. I’ll set a timer for ten minutes and use a prompt to dive into a character’s life and way of thinking. (My favorite book of prompts is Brian Kiteley’s The 3 A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises that Transform Your Fiction, but I’ll also make prompts up on the spot.)
Since the book I’m writing involves a dozen central characters, I spent many hours getting to know each one. Crafting complex and distinct characters proves to be the hardest task in writing a novel. At first I didn’t bother with character sketches. When the book became more convoluted, with seemingly “secondary” characters rising into primary positions, I decided to invest some time in creating documents detailing each character.
I started with Scrivener’s character sketch template, but later adapted it to better reflect my needs. To follow is the template I ended up using for each character.
Name: I make sure to include the meaning/significance and origin of the name.
Role in Story: This is how the character affects the plot and the other characters. For me, each character’s role is much more complicated than antagonist, protagonist, flat, round, foil, and stock—though I do find these classifications useful. (Read more about them here.) The role includes the general energy a character brings to the story and how his or her actions influence the larger plot, as well as the metaphorical implications the character may embody.
Occupation: This is simply the role the character serves in the book’s societal structure, like dishwasher or homesteader.
Birth Date and Place: Straightforward
Death Date and Place: Straightforward
Physical Description: These descriptions tend to run a couple paragraphs long. They include simple facts like height and weight, but also nuances such as the way she walks or what shirt he likes to wear most. This combination of general and specific helps create verisimilitude when the character appears on the page.
Personality/Habits: Like physical description, I combine vague with particular. Things I include are what the character does and does not like, activities he enjoys, qualities like “strong-willed” or “lacks confidence,” and telling ticks like “grinds teeth.” I also enjoy calling upon personality categories found in our modern world, including Zodiac signs, the Briggs-Myers “16 Personalities,” and the Jungian archetypes.
Inner Conflicts: This is an extension of the personality and habits, as many of our behavior patterns stem from unconscious wounds. I often create a list of conflicts that reflect a character’s personal history as well as the larger dilemmas posed by the plot. This may include a narrative the character inherited from childhood, like “you’re not good enough, try harder.” It could also include a choice the character needs to make that will directly affect the plot, an A vs. B sort of situation.
External Conflicts: Here I elaborate on how the plot affects the character. While inner conflicts deal with the insecurities and fears a character grapples with, external conflicts deal with the larger power structures and decisions made by other people. For example, an inner conflict may be “feels conflicted about whether to fight for slaves’ freedom in the Union, or fight with his father for the Confederacy,” the external conflict is a country divided on slavery and an impending Civil War. The external conflicts section expands upon the sources of internal conflicts relating to the plot and often serves as connective tissue between all the characters.
Background: If each character were to write a memoir, this section would be the material on her memoir’s back cover. I aim to condense the character’s history into two to three paragraphs. This helps me understand the most important aspects of the character’s life.
Storyline: Here I break the background down into specific years and places. I stylize it like a history timeline; it serves as a quick reference to crosscheck the facts as they appear in the book.
1905: Born in New York City
1908: Father dies. Mother moves the family to Grand Rapids, MI
1915: Leg breaks, never fully healing. Becomes a cripple.
…and so on.
Key Plot Points: Especially with a longer, more complicated plot, breaking down a character’s influence on the story into bullet points helps me see his role in the larger picture.
Related Characters: This isn’t solely blood relations, but other characters pivotal in the person’s life as well.
Notes: I like to write down where certain ideas come from, if I’m aware of their origins. Was this character inspired by someone I met, a person in history, another character in literature, or someone, or something, else entirely?
Future Development: If you’re working on a series, this is a place to include ideas about the character’s larger story arc or plot points as the story progresses in future books. I try to leave room here for the mystery of creativity while also paying attention to ideas when they arise.
Filling out these sketches for all the characters in my novel took about two weeks of work, but I’m confident the time invested made a huge difference in the storytelling. Before, during, and after creating the sketches, I made sure to spend time exploring the characters through the free writing mentioned above.
In this way, the process of discovering each character proved to be a combination of both intuitive design and mysterious creation. While each writer’s process will differ, I highly recommend spending those extra hours away from the manuscript, exploring the characters’ inner worlds and external circumstances.