Get Started Writing: Character Templates
Last week we talked about collecting content, be it old manuscripts, snippets, journal entries, etc. Gleaning bits of information out of each of these can help put together a new idea. So, once that inkling happens, where do we go?
See Last Week's Post: How do you get started writing, anyway?
Keep in mind as we go along that I am a plantser. I plan some things, but mostly let the story come to me as I write. For me, this requires some legwork before the first page begins, but that legwork is NOT an outline. So what do I do next?
I create character boards. Why? Because, as Lisa Cron says in Wired for Story, "A story is about how the plot affects the protagonist." I would expand this idea to say this matters for the other characters as well, and how they will affect each other. How can you figure this out if you don't know your characters first? At least the important 'this-is-how-and-why-they-make-decisions / react-badly' bit.
Personally, I don't go into deep detail about my characters prior to writing. I do not like personality tests or novella-length backstories. With the pantser portion of my brain, much of these in-depth questionnaires are full of unnecessary information, or end up being too restrictive, and I tend to throw out all that work, anyway. So, what do I do?
Tada! Here is my character template. Though I don't create files for each character, they do each have a page-long or so document. Let me walk you through what I find important, and how I use it.
First, I'll save-as the document with each character's name as the file title. The first section lists out the character's problem, want and need. I may save this section for later as the plot itself shapes up, or I'll get right to it if the idea is clear. Mostly, I like it on top because it's a quick reference to the motivations of the character and is the most important factor when decisions are being made by this character, or another.
Let's use my MC Ember for an example:
Problem: Ostracized leads to: trouble getting food, few/no friends, everything comes with a cost, don’t give anything for free. *Can’t get along with many people.*
Want: To survive as under the radar as possible. The less attention (from humans in particular) the better.
Need: To make true connections with people.
Notice, these are all author notes. Ember herself isn't consciously aware of her need. In fact, up to this point, life has taught her that the want section is her need. In the fourth chapter of Trimarked, these very traits lead her to ignore Nicu and return to Chase, because Chase has food for her. And that choice leads her in the literal wrong direction, toward an encounter that lets out her secret: She can open the otherwise impenetrable barrier that is trapping everyone inside Trifecta.
Next on the template, I list the strength(s), weakness(es), goal(s), internal conflict(s), external conflict(s), and habits for each character. I like highlighting each category in a different color so they're easy to spot. This part I will fill out in the beginning, as most of it is personal to character rather than dependent on plot, though there certainly will be overlap. This section is focused on how the character will act during decision making (again, of their own or by another character), whether it's excited about the change or downright grumpy, and what physical ticks we might see because of that internal reaction.
So, back to Ember:
Strength: Self preservation, resilience, able to adjust herself for optimal survival benefits
Weakness: Lack of people to trust, who are trustworthy (also a strength when presented with Tristan)
Goal: Simplest form: she wants her mother and herself to be left alone. Really, she wants to be normal, except that boat sailed. Her goal(s) will change the most, but always based on the desire to survive.
Internal Conflict: Who to trust, who and why to help? Struggle with what it means to be ‘a good person.’
External Conflict: Everyone is suspicious of what she might become.
Habits: Fingertips tap against her thighs.
Here we learn she's likely to say no to help, or to look for the strings every time, to weigh if the potential cost is worth the gain. Will engaging now mean she'll be left alone for longer in the future? If she takes part in something, it's unlikely she'll join in full-heartedly unless the reward is worth it, like food.
When it comes to filling in the template, these may be brief descriptions or lengthy ones depending on the character. After going through the bullet points, things get a bit easier. I'll jot down a physical description and pop in some photos. Random notes that don't otherwise fit can go at the end, along with songs of inspiration. I don't actively search these out unless I'm really intent on procrastination. Instead, as I hear a song that reminds me of the characters' motives, I'll write in the song title and the lyrics, maybe link to the YouTube video, and possibly add a note or two for why it motivates me. What scene does it make me think of? Etc.
At this point, I always ask myself if I'm procrastinating. Does putting all this information together just delay getting started on the story? Maybe at first, but guess what? Without it, the story will stall. Remember, I'm a plantser, which for me means no full outline of the story when I start. I throw out almost every outline I ever write. These templates keep me on track, instead.
Without these notes to come back and check, I might write a scene in which my characters are suddenly being too nice to each other. Too accommodating. Ember is suddenly open to help because she sees the golden light of friendship. This is not good. Reminding myself of their goals brings to light the conflict between them and gives me a chance to turn the holding hands into a fist fight, which is way more fun to read and tends to be better for character development and plot, anyway.
These frames are updatable, say, if you're writing a series, if you realize two characters must become one, or your character lets you know they do not agree with your initial assessment. You may also want a new one per character, per book, depending on how much their character arc has moved.
On a non-writing, publicity note, I use a slimmed-down version of these templates to create graphics for my social media pages (see my Instagram Highlights and this page on my website). Here's the way Ember's broke down. I make these in part because I enjoy putting these together, but also because it forces me to pick what's really important. What do I want a reader to know at a glance? What will help them form a connection with my characters?
Two posts in the series and not a single word on the first page, yet! Don't believe it when people claim word count is all that matters for writing. All this foundational work, whether it happens as you go, or for months before you write that first word, is also writing work. And it takes time! Don't let the short lists fool you. One character can take hours to put together, and even then, they have a way of surprising you once you get going.
Whether you're a beginner or have long since started, has any of this struck home with you? What pre-writing set up do you work on, or are you a dive right in writer? Anything you'd like me to elaborate on, or a different topic you'd like me to blog about? I'd love to hear from you in the comments.
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