There are two kinds of writers in the world; the planners and the improvisers. Or at least that’s how it seems. Reality is rarely so cut and dry. In fact, even the best improvisers often start out knowing which direction they’re heading, if not their final destination. And even the best laid plans are subject to change when the need arises. The real key is to find out what system works best for you. And it is especially important when it comes to building your fictional characters.
We’ve all seen a movie or read a book that-while starting out with a great concept-leaves us feeling a little flat. It either never makes us feel anything for the characters, or worse yet, it makes us hate them. We can blame it on the acting, or on the script, but chances on that these characters were never fully developed by their creators. Flat, stock characters can have their place in a story but it should not be in the starring role. In order to avoid this, writers have to create a round, or three-dimensional character, who has a complex personality, complete with quirks, back stories, and personal flaws.
In order to create these fully developed characters many writers resort to the List. A long list of details about each and every character that will appear in their story. Everything from their astrology sign to their childhood pets and their favorite colors can appear on the list. This type of planing can be incredibly helpful if you don’t get carried away. It can help you visualize them as an entire person, instead of only seeing them in sections as they play out their scenes. It can also help you stay consistent. Readers will notice if you accidentally change something bout their favorite characters mid-story. Like if your protagonist is lactose intolerant in one scene, but then goes out for ice cream in the next. You might not think these details are important, but anything that might take the reader out of the story will hurt your overall narrative.
The problem with the list is that it can actually be hard to know exactly what character traits you want your character to have until you’re facing a situation that calls for them. A long list of random facts about a person can be meaningless without any context. So what if your character is lactose intolerant? Why does it matter, unless maybe he works in an ice cream parlor and is forced to watch other people enjoying the one thing he can’t have. Now, this detail has meaning and it can even show us something about your character’s personality and how they must be feeling. Character development cannot be completely separate from your plot. You have to be flexible enough to add or change your character’s details as the story progresses.
If you find that pre-planning your characters just isn’t working for you, don’t worry. There are many people who skip the planning phase and jump right into it. They write intuitively and improvise as they address each of the plot points and their characters’ reactions to them. This style isn’t for everyone. And it can be hard to keep the characters consistent. It’s important though to keep practicing and if one style of writing isn’t working for you, then don’t be afraid to switch gears and approach the problem from a different angle.
Download Our Character Worksheet
If you need help creating your own list for your characters, then feel free to use our character worksheet!