Today’s guest blog post is brought to you by Rebecca Chastain.
The Hardest-Working Character Template
The key ingredient of every great novel is unforgettable characters. Unfortunately, engaging protagonists and crafty villains don’t typically spring fully formed onto the pages of your masterpiece. That’s where character templates come in.
Creating a character template is as much about getting down the information you know about a new character as it is brainstorming and developing the character. Some characters will practically write their own profiles, but when they don’t (and most don’t), filling out the template helps you stack characteristics, desires, and fictional past experiences into the shape of a realistic person.
Never underestimate the importance of character templates. If you’re the type of writer who uses a template to keep track of only the basics, consider putting in a little more time; the deeper you delve, the greater your chances for unearthing character (and plot) gold.
Level 1: Cover the Basics
What does your character look like? When you start the first draft, it seems impossible to forget the eye color of your favorite characters, but after months or years of writing and polishing your novel, you’d be surprised how often you misremember. Your readers, however, will zip through your novel in only a few hours or days, and character inconsistencies will drive them nuts. My number one motto is “keep the reader happy,” so I like to have templates to reference. In this section, list:
- Eye color
- Hair color and style
- Other important physical characteristics (dimples, eyebrow shape, facial hair, etc.)
This is also the place for standard, unchanging facts:
- Birth date
- Birth place
Of course, your story might take place over several years, and things like age and hair could change. Note the changes and when they happen so you don’t accidentally describe your character’s blond curls when he got a buzz cut a month (and two chapters) earlier.
Level 2: All That Surrounds and Shapes Your Character
You character did not grow up in a vacuum, nor does she live in one (unless she’s a djinn). Now’s the time to rummage through her belongings, flip through her photo albums, and riffle through her memories. Level 1 answers were easy and short. These answers are probably going to be long, either bulleted lists or paragraphs.
- Educational background
- Work experience
- Parents, siblings, children (and other important family)
- Romantic relationships (past and current)
- Home environment (physical and mental)
- Music, art, and reading preferences
- Dress or style
- Favorite color
- Likes and hates
If you’re writing a character template, it’s safe to say you’ve already developed a general plot or at least have the first chapter mentally ready to go. So when you finish this section, it’s tempting to jump right into your story. It feels like you know your character inside and out. You’ve got her past, her present, and some inkling of her future choices based on her history. Resist the temptation to write just yet. Take your character to the next level.
Level 3: Buried Treasures
It’s time to ask your character some tough questions, the answers to which will provide fodder you can use against her to make her life tougher. What’s her heart’s desire? The answer will tell you what to deny her. What is her greatest fear? Now you know what to force her to confront. Delve deep and unearth the heart of your character with the following questions:
- What are her emotional and mental scars and handicaps?
- Who are her enemies and why?
- What are her strongest and weakest traits?
- What is she afraid of?
- How does she see herself? How do others see her? (hint: these rarely match)
- What is her basic nature?
- What are her vices?
- What is her heart’s desire or greatest ambition?
- What is her current problem? How will it get worse?
These are difficult, and require time and introspection, but the answers will take your character from cookie-cutter to one-of-a-kind.
Level 4: Future Marketing
If you want to make a living as a writer, it’s not enough to create a wonderful story. It has to sell, too. Check to see if your character is worth her own story and if others will agree. Tip: Before you begin, coax your ego outside, then slam the door in her face before she can come back in. Be analytical and firm.
- What trait will make this character come alive and why?
- Why is this character worth writing about?
- How is this character different from other similar characters?
- Do you like or dislike this character and will your readers feel the same?
- Why is this a memorable character?
If you can’t answer these tough questions, rework your template. These questions are great for pinpointing story problems before you’re halfway through a novel. Your answers might also be the start of your query letter or cover copy. Not too shabby of a bonus!
If you put the work into your template, you’ll be rewarded with tangible characters who offer their own story ideas, and possibly the kind of characters your fans will rave about for years.
Can you think of anything this template is missing? What do you have on your character template that might help other authors?
Thank you, Rebecca. That was a fantastic list which I’m struggling to add to. 🙂
Rebecca Chastain is the author of Magic of the Gargoyles and the Amazon Top 100 Fantasy Bestseller A Fistful of Evil. Every character of her novels, including (especially!) the villains, were run through the character-template gauntlet.
To contact Rebecca, visit her website www.RebeccaChastain.com. You can also find her or Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/rebeccachastainnovels) and Twitter (https://twitter.com/Author_Rebecca). Her novels can be found on Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Rebecca-Chastain/e/B00MW89XB0) and everywhere ebooks are sold.
- and from this blog, my guests who have written about characters are Armand Rosamilia, Carol Crigger, Chris Redding, Christopher Starr, Ditrie Sanchez, Graham Smith 1, Graham Smith 2, Jane Davis, Jerry Last, Jo Barney, John Harper, Morgen Bailey, Nina Munteanu, Paul Lell, Sandra Humphrey, TJ Perkins 1, and TJ Perkins 2.
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