Using A Checklist To Help Create A Character, by Gary Worthington
As mentioned in my previous post, I suggest using a checklist to aid in creating characters for historical fiction, or any fiction. I developed my own worksheet over the years, sometimes taking ideas from other lists or articles in writers’ magazines.
Here are some questions I’ve found useful from my checklist for major characters. I also have a shortened version for minor characters. Keep in mind, of course, that the list alone is likely not sufficient to create a character who comes alive. It’s the character’s interactions with other characters and facing challenges which draw the reader into the story that make a character seem real.
The worksheet begins with the obvious physical information such as age, sex, height, weight and general body build, hair and eye colors, complexion, and so on. If I’ve been able to find a portrait or photograph for inspiration, I may tape it onto the worksheet. Then:
– What, if anything, is unusual in the character’s appearance? How does the character feel about that? How do other people react to the individual’s appearance?
– How does the character’s personality imprint itself on facial features?
– What are other physical characteristics, such as how the person moves: gracefully, ponderously, jerkily? How does the person’s body build or any disability influence that movement?
– What are the person’s voice and speech patterns like? How is that influenced by major personality traits?
– What is the person’s relative position in society (in some of my India stories the character’s caste is vitally important).
– What does the character want most in life?
– What are the character’s passions (or how the person lives intensely)?
– What is the person’s self-concept?
– Do I like the character? Why?
– What are the cumulative effects of the person’s habits (such as overeating or drinking or sarcasm)?
– What are the character’s flaws or self-defeating behaviors? What are the character’s virtues?
– What is the character’s greatest fear?
– What personal issue or fear does the character wrestle with throughout life? For example, “I don’t belong.” Or, “I’m not good enough.” How does the character deal with this issue?
– What is the character’s sense of humor?
– What are the character’s talents, hobbies or other interests?
– Who does the character admire, and why? Despise? Want to impress? Want to outdo?
– Who are the character’s closest family members? What is the importance of each to the character?
– How does the character react to: Children? Animals? Foreigners? Old people?
– Who are the character’s friends, and are they important to the person? Is the character important to them, and why? How do these friends provide support?
– Has the character hurt people? Helped people?
– Describe the character’s home – its size, decor, landscaping. Is it neat or cluttered? How does the home express his or her personality?
For the historical tale you’re writing:
– Why will the reader care about the character?
– How does the character differ from similar ones?
– Why will the character be memorable, living on after the book?
– What, or what type of person, does the character symbolize?
Finally, draw two circles for pie charts. In one, divide the chart into sections showing the relative importance of each major category that the character thinks is important to their life (such as family, work, religion, hobbies and charitable activities). In the other chart, depict how the character actually spends his or her time and energy. (Note that this might even be a useful exercise to apply to yourself!)
There’s no need to answer these questions in any particular order, or even to try to answer all of them. The checklist is simply an aid in considering aspects of a character that you might otherwise overlook but which may make the person come more alive in your story.
Gary Worthington’s author website: www.garyworthington.com
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