There are as many ways to tell fictional tales as there are people writing them, and every writer uses different methods to tell their stories. Creating a believable character is particularly challenging to some because it’s far too easy to slip up and express stereotypes without really intending to. For instance, someone writing a work of fantasy set in the Civil War might unintentionally create a Colonel Sanders (late owner of Kentucky Fried Chicken) type of character which, while possibly humorous, might not be what they wanted. Worse yet, relying on stereotypes could catch a writer by surprise, should they unintentionally offend a portion of their readership. Ideally, should a writer like to include a character with a different background from that of the writer, they should do a certain amount of research on the subject – be it through anthropological and historical studies, or talking and paying attention to people who might fit the bill.
But, say the writer is looking to create a completely fictional person or might not have access or even a realistic idea of who the character is. How could the writer get around this? Many writers find using character sheets helpful. A character sheet is a document with information about a character. A simple search on the internet can pull up a near infinite number of resources regarding the best way to compose a perfect character sheet, so the best advice would be to take a look at what’s out there and play with some ideas until the writer find what works for them.
In general, what writers looks for in a character sheet are opportunities to pose questions that can not only tell them what their character looks like physically, but also what’s at the heart of that character’s passions and problems, what motivates them, and causes obstacles. A good character sheet should help the writer understand how the character relates to other characters in the story, and how the story could be moved forward by the character.
A character sheet is also helpful in works of fiction that might go beyond one book, as a reference for a series where certain details might need to be consistent over a long period of time. There are writers who only create character sheets after the initial story is written, so when they’re in a later edition of their series they can remember that the half giant wizard has to conceal their wand in an umbrella due to an unfortunate incident in their past.
This tool could also be helpful as part of a writer’s internal marketing material. I know of many writers, especially in the romance genre, who do character interviews for guest blog posts. If they’re so inclined to talk about the character’s favorite color or flavor of pizza, they could keep that in the character sheet to have ready for later use.
How much time the writer wants to dedicate to filling out character sheets usually dictates how complicated and inclusive the sheets are. Personally, I keep the information minimal and only relevant to what drives the story and how the character relates to others. There’s a story to tell, and I’d like to get to it sooner than later. This is the template I created for myself. It’s pretty simple and straight forward, but it has the information I need to get started. I view the information in this sheet as a map or guide so while it’s helpful, I don’t feel it restricts me. Should my story take my character in another direction, I’ll change the character sheet, not the story.
This is not the only method to creating believable characters. There are many writers, especially those who specialize in fantasy, who mold their characters through gaming (e.g., board games or role playing). Historical Fiction writers will often find a historical figure who interests them and create a character based on information in that person’s life and the societal influences of their time. Contemporary fiction writers might base their characters on themselves or people they know personally.
Regardless of how you go about creating your characters – taking the time to really think about them; about who they are or would be should they have existed; about what makes them passionate about their worlds; about what they seek out and desire; or even what ultimately destroys them – getting to really know your characters can make them feel real to the readers.
“When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.” – Ernest Hemmingway
Brandon Sanderson offers some great information on character building (along with just about everything else on writing) online for FREE. Here’s the first of a series of his recorded lectures on character building.
Best of luck writing what makes you passionate and happy; may the words flow easily and never end.
Robyne Pomroy writes fiction under the pen name Kierce Sevren. You can find her through Facebook by clicking here.
She has stories in several anthologies, and is currently working on longer, novel length pieces.