By Nat Leblanc
So you’ve got a great idea for a novel or story that you’re DYING to tell. The premise is profound, the symbolism is subtle, and the big reveal at the end is going to blow your readers’ minds. You throw together an outline and show it to an editor friend. They read over it and turn to you.
“Why do I care about these people? What do they want?”
“But the story!” you argue moronically, having not yet read this article, “The story is brilliant, right? The premise is great, I know it is!”
Your editor friend throws the draft to the ground. “Maybe,” he says, lighting a cigarette and staring into the distance, “But it didn’t feel like the characters cared, so why should I have cared? Don’t ever contact me again.”
A well thought-out and relatable character can allow a reader to enter bizarre and alien worlds without as much as a blink. Whether that’s the hapless bumbling of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s Arthur Dent as he’s flung around the galaxy or the emotional turmoil that Superman feels knowing that he can never be truly human, being able to identify with a character in some way gives readers an emotional connection to your story that makes them care about what you are writing. Your plot twist might be brilliant, but compelling characters are what keep readers invested until then. So how do you write a compelling and interesting character? You can sit down at a keyboard and hope that one jumps onto the screen fully-formed as you type, or you can make a character sketch.
A good character sketch isn’t just a description of a character’s physical attributes or likes and dislikes. A character sketch is meant to tie them into the story, explain what conflicts they have to encounter, why they are conflicts and how they are going to react to them. It doesn’t just plop the character into a fully formed world, it explains how the world formed the character and how the character is forming the world. It explains what role your character takes in the world, and how they will interact with other characters in other roles.
- Character name and description of role
The first thing we need is the character’s name and the description of their role. By role, I mean protagonist, antagonist, hero/heroine, villain, friend, etc. If you have multiple protagonists or antagonists, explain their connection to the story or other characters. How is this secondary protagonist tied to the first antagonist? Where did they meet? Keep these simple and short. If the character is another character’s brother, that’s all we need to know right now.
- How the world views them
If your character exists in a world with other people in it, chances are that that world has opinions of your character. How would a casual acquaintance describe your character? How would the police describe your character’s mannerisms? How would a random person at the bar describe your character? This is where you really try to separate yourself from your character and see them from an outsider’s perspective. Try to think up a list of single-word adjectives to describe your character. This is usually how we figure out how your character will react to conflict in the story. Someone who is described as “volatile” will likely not react kindly to someone bumping into them on the street, while someone described as “gentle” will likely not punch someone’s teeth out for spilling a beer on them.
- How they view themselves
Anybody who’s taken a first year psychology course is familiar with the Looking Glass Theory: “We view ourselves as we believe others view us.” How would your characters describe themselves? Would they say that they are lonely? In love? Are they satisfied with their life? Could there be something more? This section is usually where we define the conflict that your character will have to face in your story. If they are lonely, they will likely be trying to deal with that loneliness. If they are happy, they will probably be trying to enjoy or maintain that happiness. Everybody just wants a little satisfaction, and stories are driven by somebody trying to find that satisfaction or having it taken away from them.
- Abilities and Skills
This works with numbers 2 and 3 to figure out how your characters will deal with conflict in the story. If your character is an expert in ju-jitsu and is described as fiercely loyal, we can put two and two together if somebody is roughing up their best friend. This creates solid forward momentum in your story that can be used to propel us from one plot point to the next. If your character needs to make a million dollars in a week, we need to know how their skills are going to help them get those million dollars. Are they a lazy college drop-out who’s a gifted programmer? Or maybe they’re the most skilled bank-robber there’s ever been, but they’re retired. This is also important as it creates a back story for your characters that may actively (or retroactively) influence the way that the other characters see them.
- Building up personality
What aspects of the world display the aspects of your character that you’ve described up until now? This is where we get more specific in describing your character and the internal conflict your character faces. Quickly jot down 5 elements of your character’s life or incidents in the story that will serve to accentuate the already established characteristics of their personality. If your character is stupid or lazy, have them fail a test at school. If your character is a sad, explain the incidents that made them sad. Try and think of things both overt and subtle that will make your reader think “Oh, okay. This shows that this character is like this.”
b) Compare/contrast – What aspects of the world balance out against your character’s personality? This is where we start looking at external conflicts that your character faces with the world. If your character is a miserable misanthrope, how are they interacting with the chipper newspaper vendor that they have to talk to every day? If your characters hate themselves, how do they feel about the villain’s arrogance? Comparing and contrasting elements of your character’s personality to the opposing elements of the world or characters around them should be a way of highlighting who your character is.
These are aspects of your character that serve your character’s personality through an existing or established association. They can be physical, such as a scar or a trinket, or they can be non-physical, like a melody or a verbal tic. They can be unique to the character or shared by another. They serve as habitual reminders of who this character is and what they represent. Think of Harry Potter’s lightning scar, Sam Spade’s fedora and trench coat, Ahab’s peg-leg, or Holden Caulfield’s repeated use of the term “phonies.” You can mention them in passing or you can refer to them overtly and directly. Either way, they need to be tied to and associated with your character and their personality traits.
Remember that the goal of this outline isn’t to create a character for the purpose of shoe-horning into an existing story. The goal of a character sketch is to create a crib sheet that can be used as a reference to figure out how your character would react in a variety of situations. It should be vague enough that any other writer would be able to take it and write a story involving your character, but specific enough that you would still be able to see elements of the character in any story written around the sketch.