Is Your Character An Acquaintance Or A Friend?

There are a lot of resources out there for helping develop characters, whether for a novel, short story, RPG (role playing game), or something else entirely. One of the most common resources is the character sheet. For those unfamiliar with this concept, the character sheet is a form filled with questions for you to answer about your character (e.g. age, eye color, height, hobbies, occupation, goals).

However, there are so many templates out there, it’s tough to know which one, if any, you should use. Some have a lot of specific questions, others are more vague, leaving a lot of room for creativity. Many writers don’t use character sheets at all.

As much as I would love to point you to one perfect character sheet, the fact is, there is no such thing. What works for one writer won’t necessarily work for another. I’ve used several different templates and sometimes they worked and sometimes they didn’t. Some worked for one character, but not for others.

I eventually came up with my own template that I find works well for me. I’ll go on to explain how I developed it and you’re welcome to try it out, but I won’t guarantee it will work for you just because it works for me. You may even find the whole concept of character sheets to be pointless for you. If that’s the case, you’re welcome to ignore the rest of this post.

Developing The Template

After all those disappointing trials with other character sheets, I decided to take a step back and figure out exactly what I wanted this tool to accomplish, what purpose I wanted it to serve. Obviously I needed to know physical specifics in order to paint a picture in the reader’s mind, but I needed to know in depth specifics even more. I needed to know what makes them tick. Not just the unique things they do, but why they do them. The longer I thought it through, the more I came to realize that I needed to really get to know the character. And not just as a character, but as a person.

With that conclusion in mind, I began thinking about how I get to know real people, how I go about turning a new acquaintance into a close friend. The most important observation I made is that I get to know people by asking them about their life. I listen to stories from their childhood, I ask them about their dreams and passions and how they came to want those things. I don’t just ask about their hobbies, I join them and learn how they do things differently than others. I discuss their opinions about life and the world around them and how their personal experience affects those opinions.

In short, getting to know someone in real life is a lot more complex than asking them random questions, so if I wanted my characters to feel real, I needed a method just as complex. Three dimensional, so to speak.

Creating The Template

I started with the first steps I take in meeting someone new and translated that into the first section of my original character sheet template. The beginning questions are basic and don’t require long, thought out answers because they are, for the most part, self-explanatory. They’re the sort of things you would learn about someone just by looking at them. (An exception is if you’re writing SFF in which the world itself affects your character’s physical attributes, in which case you’d need more complex answers. But that’s more about world building than character development, so I won’t get into that here.)

The next section of my template requires more thought out answers regarding the character’s desires and personality. I often don’t end up filling these out until after I’ve written the last section (sometimes after I’ve started writing the story), as these are things one generally learns about a real person through experience and observation.

And speaking of the last section, that is the most important and in depth part of the template. Aside from the first two questions about their goals, I mostly write short synopses of various childhood moments that serve to make the character who they are at the start of my story. This is typically called back story which is often not included in most character sheets I’ve found.

Whoever we are at any stage of life is who we’ve come to be partly because of our experiences, so to create a character without considering that aspect is simply shortsighted. Our characters don’t come into being fully formed at the start of our stories and they don’t develop their opinions and passions out of nowhere either. Many things happened to bring them to that point and writing those memories down, or at least considering them, is much like having a deep, heart-to-heart conversation with a friend that inevitably deepens the relationship.

Here is an example of my template:

Section 1

Age:

Physical description: (I start with hair and height and work my way down, like giving a new acquaintance a once over. If they’re clothing tells you more about their personality, mention that, too.)

Habits/Mannerisms: (Do they fiddle with pencils, chew their nails, twist their hair, etc.?)

Occupation (if applicable):

Section 2

Personality: (What makes them different from everyone else? If you asked a group of people to describe them with one word, what would those words be?)

Hobbies:

Fears:

Section 3

Short term goals: (What do they want right now, at the start of the story? It doesn’t have to be just one thing.)

Long term goals: (What do they want for their life in general? This doesn’t have to be just one thing, either.)

Backstory: (Here’s where their childhood stories and experiences are explored.)

(Do you like this concept, but prefer more specific questions? Here‘s a similar approach with more of an interview style. Developed by the one and only K. M. Weiland @kmweiland)

Final Thoughts

When I’m creating a new character, a relationship is what I’m really after. I don’t just want to write a unique character that I can describe in perfect detail. I want to get to know them, watch them grow up, know their frustration when they fail their first test, feel the pain of their first broken heart. When I know my characters as close friends, then their unique voices will be that much easier to hear. They will become much more real to the reader.

Since I’ve started creating my characters with this template, I’ve also noticed that I never fill it out from top to bottom. And I never fill it out completely before starting my story. Just as you might learn that a friend is colorblind long after meeting them, there are plenty of things you might learn about your character as you write the story. And as you learn about their childhood, some things in the first two sections might need to be changed to fit the new context.

Meeting new people is a complicated and often non-linear process that is never quite the same every time. So it is with developing characters. This template may work for you, or it may make the whole process more frustrating. It isn’t perfect and that’s okay. After all, the only real rule in writing is to figure out what works for you and keep at it.

Did this template work for you? Do you use something different? Do you have suggestions to make this one better? Let me know in the comments.

Siren of the Void

The door to Sam ’n Joe’s bar slid away as the gruff captain approached and he stumped through. A quiet ding informed him that he’d passed the age scan. Ed grunted. That stupid ding just reminded him how old he’d gotten. And thinking about his age reminded him of how much he’d lost since leaving Earth. The people he’d lost. Well, one person. One impossible, one-of-a-kind woman.

He thunked into his usual seat at the end of the bar and rapped a knuckle against the grungy stainless steel. A holographic screen flickered on and he punched in his order, swiping his wrist over the scanner to pay. Most customers just told the smart bar what they wanted, but he never opened his bushy mouth if he didn’t have to. A minute later, a slot opened in the counter and his usual beer popped out.

“I swears over my memaw’s grave. She came floatin’ right up to the port window. I could hear her sweet singin’ all the way through the walls.”

Ed’s ears twitched. Without drawing any undue attention, he creaked his head around to peek at the unknown speaker. The young greenhorn waved his arms around in the small booth, nearly toppling his buddies’ drinks. They both grabbed the bottles and rolled their eyes at each other.

“At first I thought I was dreamin’ so I smacked myself to see if I’d wake up, but I didn’t so she must’a been real. She looked like a ghost woman only the most beautifulest woman I ever did see.”

His buddies turned to each other, then burst out laughing. Ed turned back to his beer with a twist to his lips. They didn’t know what they were laughing at. For that matter, neither did the greenhorn. Most beautiful woman, indeed. If the kid had seen her on the other side of the barrier, he’d have dropped dead of shock. Ed nearly did the first time he’d seen one of them in their incredible, natural form.

Her name was Savensa and she was the reason he’d stayed out in space longer than any other miner. Not long after getting fired at the bar back on Earth, he’d heard of an asteroid mining company seeking entry level workers. After all the jobs he’d lost, space had started to look like his last chance to do something fun. The novelty had worn off almost as soon as he’d gotten out there.

Then she’d found him.

He’d been out on an unauthorized spacewalk, watching the stars, trying to manufacture some semblance of adventure. She appeared out of nowhere and he nearly shit himself. She was glowing and hazy and a lot of her wasn’t even visible. Most of her was sort of bluish, but he could see traces of other bright colors, too. Like the greenhorn had said, she looked like a beautiful ghost. When their eyes met, his blood flowed south and his brain pretty much shut down. She cocked her head curiously and he got lightheaded, like that one time he’d drunk an entire bottle of rum in one night.

Then she disappeared. He blinked and looked around stupidly, as if there was a corner somewhere she could have ducked behind. He nearly emptied his oxygen tank waiting for her to appear again, but she never did.

After that, Ed made sure to get as many spacewalks as he could. Weeks went by, but the need to see her again never faded. If anything, it grew stronger and stronger the longer he waited. She appeared a few more times after that, but it was always too brief. All his free time he spent fantasizing about her, hearing her voice, touching her skin, tasting her lips. She was driving him mad.

He’d snuck out while the rest of the crew slept when she appeared that final time. He blinked a couple times, not quite trusting his own eyes. There was more of her this time, more definition. Her arms ended in fingers instead of wispy trails and her legs … well, that’s about when his brain shut down again.

Her head cocked and a ridiculous grin spread across his face. Then she spoke. It was like a jolt to his spine, so beautiful it struck him like lightning. He couldn’t understand any of it, but that didn’t stop him from reaching for her. His whole body ached to touch her, to hold her.

Her eyes widened as he neared. That tempting mouth started babbling a mile a minute and her hands fluttered around anxiously. All he could think was how adorable she looked, but he held back, not wanting to spook her. He waited as her rambling tapered off. She met his eyes, then seemed to take a deep breath and tentatively took his hand.

He felt a brief tugging before being sucked through her and into unconsciousness.

Later on he learned that he’d been pulled through the barrier to her alternate universe. When he came to, it was to smooth, bright colored trees which turned out to be huge strands of fur. Light fluff all over the ground that he eventually learned was dander. But what he’d truly never gotten used to was Savensa.

She’d appeared seconds after he’d first opened his eyes in that world. As if the world itself wasn’t amazing enough, seeing her in full form had nearly knocked him out. She’d begun rambling and fluttering again. And it looked so damn cute on her, he didn’t bother to check if he could breathe the air before ripping off his helmet and covering that pretty, golden mouth with his own. She froze, and he silently cursed himself for being too forward. Then like chocolate held too long in his hand, she melted against him, filling in all his cracks.

He swept his fingers into her glittering, silver hair, groaning when they tingled like cold hands under hot water. He pressed her to him, clutching a fistful of her petal soft dress. Finally holding her, finally kissing her; it felt like coming home. Which only made their abrupt separation some time later more painful.

He still had no answers for why he’d been ripped back through the barrier so soon after coming through. He hadn’t had nearly enough time with her. But he hadn’t given up so easily. He’d spent every minute since leaving her world looking for another way back in. Every spacewalk he lingered in the hope that she would appear. Every quadrant of the system in which they’d met he’d mapped and scoured.

And now, after all the years, he found himself listening to a bunch of knuckleheads scoffing at a fantasy he’d never stopped believing in.

He knocked back the last drips of his beer and tossed the empty bottle into the smart bar’s recycle chute. His sore muscles strained as he stood and turned to the greenhorn and his buddies.

“I hear you saw a siren of the void. Mind tellin’ me where?”

They all blinked up at him stupidly. After a quiet minute, the greenhorn stuttered out the coordinates. Ed nodded his thanks and stomped back out of the bar, suddenly tempted to throw out a fist pump. He was finally going home.