Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Creating Characters--Shannon Style

Last week I showed you guys my obsessively organized brainstorming method, and since I mentioned that I also work with a separate character profile, I thought I'd cover my character building methods this week.

Now, I'll confess, I happen to be one of those writers whose characters are VERY real to them. Like, so real they talk to me and hijack my plots and run my life. (Yeah...my husband thinks I'm weird). So my main characters tend to come to me pretty complete, already talking to me and bossing me around. I still fill out the character profiles, but it's mostly just recording the stuff I already know, rather than building the characters and discovering them.

But for my side characters--who I like to be just as detailed and unique as my main characters--writing the character profile is invaluable to me.

So, here's my character profile template:

If you click on them you *should* be able to read them better. 
And incidentally, if you'd like me to email you a .doc of it, just let me know, I'd be happy to.

So this is what I call, "the basics." It's a list of what are, in my opinion at least, the most useful questions from a bunch of different "how to write" books/websites. 
  • Name. 
  • Appearance. 
  • Friends. 
  • Family. 
  • Faults. 
  • Strengths. 
  • Etc. 

And some of the questions start to get you digging a little deeper, like asking how the character feels about their appearance. What their biggest secret is. Are they likable? Will readers like them? Memories from their childhood. On and on. All good things to know. 

By the time I'm done really thinking about all those questions and coming up with answers, I'll have a really good basic sense of the character. Even a sense of how they speak. Definitely worth taking the time to do. But for me...that's only the beginning. 

Once I've filled out all "the basics" on my character profile template, I start adding new questions at the bottom--ones not on the document I'm showing you, because they're questions specific to the character individually, based on what I've learned about them from filling out the profile.

For example, if my character is a 12-year-old girl, I'm going to ask myself:
  • Has she entered puberty? 
  • How does she feel about those changes to her body?
  • Is she wearing a bra yet? 
  • Getting zits? 
  • Shaving her legs? 
  • Has she started wearing make-up? 
  • Has she started her period? 
  • Is she interested in boys yet? 
  • Has she ever kissed a boy?
  • Does she want to, or is that still weird?
  • Are her friends older or younger than her? 
  • Etc. 
I know those seem like weirdly personal questions to be thinking about with a character, but to me, that's what makes them REAL. I mean, I remember being a 12 year old girl--there were a LOT of changes going on to me and my friends, and we were all at different points in our metamorphosis. It mattered--big time--if we were the only one not allowed to wear make-up, or the only one not allowed to shave their legs. It defined so much of how I saw myself--and how others saw me. So even though I'll probably never mention whether or not my character has a zit on her cheek or is embarrassed about still needing a "training bra"--unless it factors into the story--she becomes SO much more real to me if I know that about her.

And the reason those questions aren't built into my template is because they only matter if my character is a "tween" girl. If my character is a teenage boy, the list changes. I might ask:
  • Does he like to flirt with girls?
  • Has he entered puberty yet?
  • Is his voice deep, high pitched--or cracking?
  • Does he play any school sports?
  • How tall is he, compared to the other boys?
  • Does he need to shave yet?
  • Has he kissed a girl?
  • Does he have acne, backne, or neckne?
  • How do girls respond to him?
  • How do other guys respond to him?
  • Does he brag a lot?
  • Etc. 
Again, what I'm *trying* to do is get to the essence of them. The things I might notice if they were a real teenage guy standing right in front of me, or if they were my brother or cousin or something. That's what really gets them to start talking to me, and really makes them "them" and not "generic teenage boy character X"

Pretty sure you guys get the point, but just to pound the point home:

If the character were a middle-aged mom with kids, I would ask:
  • Does she have any lines or wrinkles on her face?
  • Is her hair turning gray yet?
  • Is she comfortable in a bikini? Tankini? One piece? 
  • Does she have any regrets?
  • How many men did she date before she married her husband?
  • Is she still in touch with any of those men?
  • Has her life turned out the way she'd hoped it would?
  • Does she ever think about death or worry about her health?
  • Does she like "young" clothes and music?
  • Could she still fit into her wedding dress?
  • How does she get along with her in-laws?
  • Does she trust her husband?
  • Etc.

Once again, most of those things probably won't show up in the book. But it's amazing how real it makes a character to think of them like this. I can't tell you how many times I had a character who was just sort of...generic and boring, and thanks to these exercises I'd realize: She was in love with character X when they were younger and has still never gotten over it!!! Or:  He's this cocky, cute guy that all the girls want...but he's never kissed a girl because he's not allowed to date yet and he doesn't want anyone else to know! 

It's amazing how knowing that about a character makes them jump of the page. It's like their dialogue pretty much writes itself after that.

So basically, all my character profiles start the same, and end completely differently. But the end goal is always the same: to see my characters as real, flawed people with secrets--big and small--they're keeping, issues--deep or shallow--that influence them and individual personalities and histories. Usually takes me several hours per character, but it is worth every second of that time--especially when it comes to dialogue. I revise my dialogue less than any other aspect of my draft, and it's because I know my characters so well, I *know* what they're going to say.  But I'll talk more about dialogue in another post.

Okay, I think that covers the topic pretty well. What about you guys? How do you get to know your characters? If you ask yourself any questions I haven't mentioned, please--do share. I love hearing about other writer's methods. :)


  1. Excellent list Shannon. You've pretty much covered how to create a person from the ground up. Do you feel like Dr. Franenstein? lol

    I have to say, that I too, don't usually rip apart my dialogue because my characters are always in my head as well. I know what they're going to say even before they do. (It is way too early in the morning for me to be commenting on posts without enough caffeine.)

  2. Excellent character sheet! I use one as well. I really focus on the character's background and personality traits.

  3. I never, ever used to do this. That is, until I saw a short story of my daughter's. She had a character study that was as long as her story, but made me realize how little I knew of my own. It really does open your characters out of their Flat Stanley status.

  4. Great advice. I need to try this next time I start a story rather than winging it. Will you e-mail me your docs? Thanks.

  5. LOL! Only you, Shannon, would include needing to know whether or not the character has backne or neckne, haha...

    Very thorough!!!

  6. I Love this! I always have a problem with generic characters when I start out a new WIP and have never really found a worksheet that I like. I'm SO trying this with my current WIP!

    Thanks for posting!

  7. Wow! This is an intense list!

    Thanks for sharing!

    (But what do you do if you answer is: "I don't know.....I don't know....I don't know.....yet?)


  8. Oh my heck. I have hives. I so don't do this in any form whatsoever.

    Yeah, I'm what you'd call a discovery writer. I just write the story. I can't write unless I have a character to tell the story, so I usually have some stewing time internally.

    Then I just sit down and discover. Which is why my drafts are completely rewritten after I'm done the first time. And my characters are often inconsistent for the first few rounds of editing. And they have no arc.

    But whatever. Somehow, I work it all out by the end.

    Great list, though! I'm glad you have a method that works for you!

  9. Thanks! Really great info. Some questions on there I hadn't thought about. :)

  10. Awesome as usual. I really like you're style of how you go about things, Shannon. They make sense to me. I do character profiles, but only the basic stuff. However, for my newer project that I'm working on (well, now it's on hold so I can get my revision finished) I did try to think of other things: biggest fear, hobbies, plans for the future, etc. I never thought though of some of the other questions that you listed.
    Just curious- do you do these character profiles before you do your plotting of the story or after? Does your plot come into play when you do these character profiles? Sometimes I think I tend to manipulate either one or the other to fit my needs- not sure if I should.
    I would love a copy of your doc.! Thanks!

  11. I love your list. I've tried a few different things, but this seems so simple. Could I have a copy? Thanks :)

  12. I suppose I do this in my head, but I also have a hierarchy. My one novel includes a pretty big ensemble cast, but there are different levels at which the characters are explored. The MC, obviously, as the 1st person narrator, goes incredibly deep. Then his 1st tier of friends are less so, then second tier friends, teachers and so on.

    I can't lay it all out ahead of time because I feel like it would box me into a corner. Obviously that's neurotic and ridiculous but I can't help it.

  13. Interesting to see your process. I'm kind of that opposite of you in that my side characters come to me fully formed and it takes me FOREVER to figure out my main character.

    I don't really do the question thing. I think about how my characters feel about certain things and why, but I don't really question them. Maybe it's odd, but for me picking the characters name and getting their look down is the most important thing to me. Once I decide on a name and know what they look like everything else kinda snaps into place.

  14. Okay, I'm really putting myself out there, but to get to know my last characters I role-played. Yes, I said it. One of my CPs got on Messenger with me and we just chatted away as if we were our characters. It was amazing.

  15. Oh yes, pleeeeeez, mail those character questions to me! :o)

    Good stuff, here. Lately I was actually wondering if my 17-year-old MC would be shaving. Hmmm! And I can definitely see why these details would make the characters more real, even if all of them didn't appear in the novel. Great things to think about!!!!

  16. Fantastic character sheet. I have to admit, I am one of those who gets to know the character pretty much by writing the draft. I usually know what they want and who/ what will stop them, but the rest comes from writing.

  17. LOL Shelley (Storyqueen). I can never respond to your comments (you don't have an email attached to your profile) so I'll try here. You're totally right. Sometimes I don't have the answer--and that's where the fun comes in. I get to play the "What if" game until I find the answer. So much fun considering all those possibilities.

    And that's the thing about this guys. For me, this is fun. I know it's obsessively organized and a lot of work. But I love digging deep into my characters like this, and really getting to know all their inner thoughts and secrets, because they're like real people to me, so it's like getting to know a friend even better. Totally weird, I know. But so much fun.

    Thanks for all the comments everyone! I'll respond to the rest via email. And I hope they keep coming, because I love seeing how different everyone's process is. So many ways to accomplish the same thing. :)

  18. Umm.. WOW! I love it.

    Can I ask for an emailed copy? I did try and read it but I think I went cross-eyed a few times. Would that be too much trouble, if so no worries. But I'm very interested in trying a new way to get on of my novels organized and edited and I'm really loving the way you seem to do it.

  19. I'd have to say I'm a discovery writer. I have names, faces in my head, a basic idea of what they look like, age, gender - the basics. But, their personalities come out in my writing and I generally do character sketches after the fact, just to make sure I'm consistent. Not entirely sure it's working for me...the more blogs I read about everyone's writing processes - well, I think maybe I need to be a bit more organized about things. Up front. Maybe. I'm going to adopt some ideas I've read about (yours included). Wish me luck? :)

  20. Wow, what a great list. So thorough! I'm jealous. I don't bother with lists like that. I have charts for eye color, hair color, and other physical characteristics (because I hate reading stories with inconsistencies like green eyes and later she magically has blue eyes, no contacts needed!)

    That said, I think I might start interview characters before I start working on a new story (which won't be for several months). Might be a way to come up with some new story ideas!

  21. WOW these questions are amazing.
    I always feel like a slacker writer because I never sit down and get to know my characters that well. I feel like I'm doing a huge disservice to my characters and my plot by not doing it. But every time I go to start one, I grumbled, "but I don't wannna."
    Yeah i'm a big baby and I need to put on my grown up pants on.

  22. You, #1, are amazing! And holy cow that's a lot of work! I could have benefited from digging deeper in my earlier drafts (as you know). So, .doc me please!!! :-)

  23. Normally I'm a discovery writer but I also like to change things up and see what works best. My current wip is one that I decided to do character studies on, like little mini ones compared to your's.lol

    But I really think it helps to capture the seperate voices of each character. I'm doing it from now on.

  24. I love these! I've been looking for a good character profile worksheet... would you mind emailing yours to me?

    lisagalek at gmail dot com

    I find when I've filled out character studies before I start writing that my characters "pop" more. They seem distinct from each other (like real people). Thanks!

  25. This is an awesome list and a genius character form. I also keep one, but it's a lot simpler than that one. Massive hugs and massiver cookies if you send it my way!
    (Or, if you keep it as a google docs, I have a docs account under the same e-mail. Whatever you prefer!)
    Thanks again.

  26. Great template. Mine isn't quite so organized, I may steal yours. I mostly form an image of them in my head first then make little notes in a notebook and go from there. I also watch people or stalk them when I'm out. This helps in discovering new quirks for character building. Great post. Thanks!!!

  27. Because of Nano, holidays, etc., I've not been around the blogosphere or Twitterverse much lately...thus, I missed most of this series. *pouts* Sorry.
    But, I have gone back and read through it all...well done, girlfriend. well done. :)

    It never gets old reading other writer's writing process. Never.


  28. These ones were emailed to me:

    I suck at questions but here's two:

    Assuming you can only read one book for all eternity, which book would it be?

    You're given the ability to time travel. Do you go back into the past or look to the future and what's happening at that time?

    ~ Zahida (aka A Canadian Girl)


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