Forget your character fact sheets! Nothing is wrong with them — especially if you’ve tailored them to fit your particular needs — but some writers find themselves looking around for more engaging methods of character development. So today I’ve pulled together three ways to create characters that can replace or supplement the ubiquitous fact sheet, choosing forms that encourage the creation of multiple characters with few or no overlapping traits.
Visual and kinesthetic planners take note. Note cards provide a mobile alternative to character charts! Note cards make for a great change of pace and help avoid accidental duplication of traits. I recommend using note cards when 1) first creating characters, 2) fleshing out characters, or 3) merging characters.
- Write one character fact per index card. You can color-coordinate the facts if you want. I like to use pink for relationships, blue for personality traits, green for physical traits, purple for backstory, and orange for miscellaneous.
- Create a space for each character’s card pile. Note cards can be spread out on the floor, table, or wall. I like going to a local pizza buffet and taking up a whole booth!
- Sort character fact cards into piles. To create more fully-developed characters, check that you have every type of card in each pile (physical appearance, habits, back-story, etc). Remember that not every card needs to be used every time. Keep a pile of discards, you can use those cards another time!
- Create duplicate cards sparingly. You might find yourself wanting to repeat some traits — for family members, foils, mirrors, etc. When you do this, be conscious of what you are doing and do it sparingly.
HINT: I store my unused pool of cards in a large plastic bag so they stay together. Each character also has a labelled baggie.
Writers who are analytical and interested in deep character development may like to give personality tests to their characters. I like to do this when deciding the general personality types that will be in the book. Most personality type tests are pretty much about the “big picture” (how the character generally acts) and the “true picture” (who the character is on the inside and outside when there are few pressing demands). Personality tests can be found in books, booklets, or on-line.
- Choosing the test. I spent an entire semester in college (plus time in a research lab) studying about this subject. All I can say is that there are many great personality tests out there. My personal favorite is the Myers-Briggs because I find it easy to understand and easy to use. The most important factors in your choice, however, should be that 1) it has enough categories to offer you variety without becoming overwhelming and 2) you can accept or believe the rules and assumptions that underlie the categories.
- Taking the test. I subject each new character to a test. When taking the test, keep in mind that you are choosing the option that best describes the character most of the time. Keep in mind any back-story that you may have developed for your character. Some of the questions might inspire you to better understand your character, if you have to restart the test because of new insights, do it!
- Using test results. Personality test results give you a general idea of what to expect from your character — no more. The results can really help you find ways to show your character’s early “baseline” and later”hot spots” for conflict.
- Character growth. Even researchers disagree about whether basic personality changes through adulthood or whether only the expression of personality changes across adulthood. This means you need to decide for yourself if there is a fundamental personality change in any character arc.
For writers interested in creating unique character descriptions, I recommend choosing elemental types for your characters. Using elemental descriptions is especially useful when deciding on physical descriptions and when choosing specific words late in the drafting process. This is usually done on the computer. For variety, I like to use Pinterest to find images of the effects I want to pass on to the reader.
- Choosing elements. Brainstorm different possible elements. In my book world, I like to use the Chinese elements of Fire, Water, Wood, Earth, and Metal. Elements from a preexisting system will have built-in associations but you don’t like what you find, you can certainly create your own system. Other elements could include Air, Spirit, Life, Dark.
- Researching elements. One reason I chose Chinese elements is because in Chinese culture these elements interact by feeding or repressing other elements. Additionally, these elements are used in ancient Chinese medicine, martial arts, and organization of spaces. This gives me lots of fodder for ideas!
- Assigning elements. One may immediately “click” with a particular character. My current protagonist “flares” in her anger, flicks her read hair, her eyes flicker, ignites with passion… So she’s clearly fire. Her foster brother is far more earthy.
- Using elements. The above descriptions may have already given you some ideas for how the elements can be used. You could even substitute something else for elements — maybe choose animals instead. Whatever sparks your imagination.
These three are my personal favorites. For myself, I use the note cards as a way to brainstorm characters who will be distinct from each other. I then broaden my view with personality tests. But I use the elemental types at every stage of my process. I think there are many fun ways to design and enhance characters. All it takes is a little imagination!