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:
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):
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?)
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)
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.