A Character Creation Template
By Jeanne Lyet Gassman
Interesting and complex characters are the cornerstone of good fiction. If a writer doesn’t know his characters well enough, he may find it difficult to move the story forward in a plausible fashion. One solution to this problem is to write a short biography of the character. I’ve created what I call a “character creation template,” a tool that allows me to dig deep into my character’s background to find sources of conflict and crisis. In addition to this template, I like to have a photo (taken from a magazine or newspaper) of someone who looks like my character. These simple devices will help you imagine a character in three-dimensional terms. Let’s begin with the basics:
The first place to start is with the facts. Some questions to consider include:
When was your character born?
Where was your character born?
Is there any other important information we should know about the character’s birth?
The choice of a name may be fairly obvious, but the nickname can be an important identifying characteristic. Nicknames are often born from either physical or personality traits. They can also be cruel reminders of past mistakes—a great source of internal tension for your character.
The time and place of birth can be significant to your story if it impacts your character’s present condition. A character who was abandoned after his birth in a bathroom stall may have issues that affect his current choices. In astrology, each astrological sign is assigned certain personality traits. Knowing your character’s astrological sign can be an aid to establishing a framework for your character’s basic temperament.
Our families shape us and define us as human beings. When we become adults, we often spend much of our lives either rebelling against certain family expectations or seeking approval of our lifestyle choices. The same is true for your characters. When you choose your character’s family background, consider how that family influences your character’s life. Some things you should know about the family:
Father’s name and occupation
Mother’s name and occupation
Step-parents (if any) and the nature of their relationship to your character
Birth order—Is your character the oldest? The youngest? A middle child? Only child?
Members of the extended family
Our “favorites” reflect both our personality traits and our needs. For example, a character who loves jazz may already have a mellow temperament. Or, he may listen to jazz because he’s a nervous person who finds the music calming. Some “favorites” to think about for your character:
Favorite place—What about this place makes it a favorite choice? Does it have any particular associations with the past that might influence the present?
Favorite time of day
Favorite time of year
Any other “favorites” including such items as food, activities, weather, etc.
In every life, there are those moments that shape our future. These events—often occurring in childhood—can be painful or joyful, but they affect our feelings about ourselves in adulthood. The same is true for your characters. The important moments in your character’s childhood:
What is the worst memory of your character’s childhood?
What is your character’s fondest memory of his childhood?
What does your character think was the worst day of his life? Why?
What does your character think was the best day of his life? Why?
As you probe deeper into your character’s life, you need to explore how the people around her see her. Is she someone who attracts friends? Or is she a loner? Is she trustworthy? Or does she betray confidences? You can find the answers to these questions by asking her best friend and her worst enemy:
Who is your character’s worst enemy? Why is this person her enemy?
What would your character’s worst enemy say is your character’s best quality? What traits does the enemy admire or respect?
Who is your character’s best friend? Why is this person a best friend?
What would the best friend say is your character’s worst quality? How does your character disappoint her best friend?
“Survival” can refer to both physical needs (food, shelter, safety) and psychological survival (talismans, good luck charms, security blankets, etc.) When you answer these two questions, think about both the physical and the psychological needs of your character.
What does the character always have in his refrigerator? (Note: Refrigerator can be a metaphor for any way of storing food that is readily accessible.)
What does the character always have on his person?
Crisis and Conflict
Good stories are always about change, and change often creates a crisis for the characters. Some characters resist change while other characters seek change. The way your character feels about the changes in her life will affect the way she behaves.
The same idea is true for likes and dislikes. Take away something your character really likes, and she will strive to get it back. Force something upon your character that she dislikes, and she will try to get it out of her life, either by fleeing or fighting.
Finally, remember that you are the god of this universe. You know more about your character than she knows about herself. What your character believes is a personal disaster could prove to be a gift in disguise. With that in mind, here are the final questions for your template:
How does the character respond to change? Does she hate change? Or does she seek change?
This is the type of person who likes/dislikes…
According to the character, what is the worst thing that could happen to her?
According to the author, what is the worst thing that could happen to the character?
May all of your main characters lead interesting and complicated lives. Happy writing!
Jeanne Lyet Gassman is an award-winning author whose fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry have been published in magazines, newspapers (including The Arizona Republic and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), and anthologies. In 2002, Ms. Gassman was the recipient of an Encouragement Award in Creative Writing from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, and in the 2005 Preditors & Editors Reader’s poll her story, '”Healing Arts,'” was ranked among the Top 10 in the nonfiction category. She also teaches writing classes and conducts workshops in the Phoenix metropolitan area.