One of a writer’s biggest challenges is creating complex, three-dimensional characters that feel more like real people than cartoonish tropes, or even worse, cardboard set pieces being pushed along their plots like game tokens.
To that end, a lot of people will advise creating character outlines as you begin building your story. I’ve found one particular model, taken from some of my theatre classes for analyzing characters, is just as useful for engineering them. I’ve made some adjustments to the list over the years, but all in all, it’s been a good starting place for thinking about what has shaped my characters’ lives.
I’ve included my current version of the outline below.
Character Biography Outline
- Physical Description
- Marital Status
- Relationship History
- Meyers-Briggs Classification
- What is she doing when she isn’t the focus of the story?
- What does she do for fun?
- Who does she socialize with?
- Who is her closest friend?
- Who is her significant other?
- What are her mannerisms? Any tics or tells?
- Any colloquialisms or slang she frequently uses?
- What does she wear?
- How does she travel?
- What makes her happy?
- What annoys her?
- What does she wish?
- Where was she born?
- Where does she live?
- What is her family like?
- How does she relate to her parents?
- Defining Moment?
- What is she passionate about?
- What does she fear?
- Biggest secret?
- What haunts her?
Now that I’m in the editing phase of my current project, I find myself going back to this list, only now, I’m analyzing my character instead of building them. I sort all the quotes relating to the character into two sets: What the Character Says About Herself, and What Others Say About the Character.
This is how I test the character’s consistency. Because if a character’s not consistent, how can we get to know them and how do we care?
So, looking at those two sets of quotes, I build a new profile. Who do they reveal? Is the character who I’d originally envisioned, or have they changed? Change is okay, just so long as it’s properly motivated and there is still a logical consistency to how the character behaves throughout.
The quotes also show me where I could include more or less detail about my character. I know who the character is, but readers will only see what’s on the page, not what’s in my head. Maybe I need to hint at her biggest secret or what haunts her a little more so readers will understand her better, or maybe I need to cut a few things because it’s redundant how much her hair is described.
This is just one method for building better characters. The key thing is to think of them as real people, with histories that shape who they are and desires and fears that motivate their actions. They have to be more than the plot of their story.