As I’ve been working on the last book in my Marked series, I’ve also begun looking ahead to future projects (hurray!). I’ve been thinking a lot about my creative process—specifically all of the things that I did poorly early in the development of this series.
I made a pretty spectacular number of dummy mistakes when I wrote Division (foolish errors that made each book more difficult as I went, since I couldn’t go back and make changes). I don’t have any regrets, really—I learned a lot along the way, and I’m happy with most of the final product—but I intend to be smarter when tackling early planning in the future.
In particular, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to my character creation process. Since I write character driven fiction, characters are the engine of my story. They are the most important ingredient. Which is why the complete lack of planning I did when I created my characters in Division was so short-sighted.
I’ve come to think of it as the “swing open the carriage door” method of character development, because that is literally how I handled character creation. My two main characters, Bray and Yarrow, came to me more or less fully formed, but I knew they needed friends. So, in the opening of the story, they are riding along in a carriage and they pick up two other boys along the way. I put zero thought into who these boys should be or how they would play into the plot. I just opened the door and let someone walk in. Arlow, Peer, Ko-Jin, and Adearre were all created this way.
THEN, I doubled down on this stupidity, when I decided in book two that these characters, whom I’d invented so haphazardly, should all get their own POVs and become major players in the plot. Which meant that I needed them to develop and grow in ways that would add to the larger story. I’d given them personality flaws at random, and had to think of ways for them to confront these flaws while still working towards the ultimate conclusion I’d already set in motion. It was like dumping random puzzle pieces down on the table and just praying that my future-self could figure out how they might fit together.
The fact that I actually DID figure it out is something of a miracle—and, as a result, I invented some interesting plot points that I otherwise would never have considered—but really, why make this so needlessly difficult for myself?
So, as I start developing my next project, I have begun with the radical notion of creating my characters BEFORE I dump them into a story that’s already on the move. This way I can deliberately shape the plot to suit my characters. I began looking for templates online for character creation, and though I found many out there, none were what I needed. They often had lots of details that were not relevant to me as a fantasy writer, and left out the things that I think are most important. So I decided to create my own.
I think strong primary characters must be three things:
1) Specific – Great characters are specific rather than vague. They aren’t merely a “type.” They are idiosyncratic. When I wrote up this character template, I was still suffering from a book hangover after reading Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle, and I could not get over how beautifully distinct and unique her characters were. All of the tiny yet consistent details made her cadre of friends vivid and real. Gansey chews mint leaves and rubs his fingers to his lip when he’s thinking. Ronan is a foul-mouthed antiestablishment ruffian / practicing Catholic with soft-spot for baby birds. NONE of these characters are a type. There are so many different ways a character can be distinctly themselves: it’s in their mannerisms and speech patterns, their belief and desires, their possessions and appearance.
2) Dynamic – Duh. I know. Obviously my main characters can’t be static. So when planning a character, I need to think ahead to how they are going to change. I need to give them room to grow…or degenerate. I also need to consider that they existed before the story began (unless we start at birth). Real people have pasts that matter to them—cherished memories and painful experiences. The movie Inside Out helped me think about this in a more concrete way. Riley’s key personality traits were all attached to significant memories, and when she formed new (traumatic) memories, her personality was—at least temporarily—changed. SO, what past events have helped inform who my character is when he or she is introduced? AND, when something significant happens during the story, how will it effect my character moving forward?
3) Driven – Most commonly, we talk about characters being driven by a goal. They have an objective and they are moving towards it, or trying to. Usually they are held up by some manner of deficiency that they first need to overcome. But characters are driven in lots of ways—they can be driven my key character traits, like loyalty or ambition. They might be driven by a key belief or philosophy. Interesting character usually have more than one thing that is pushing them—and sometimes the things that motivate them begin to conflict. Maybe their lifelong goal of becoming an expert fighter begins to clash with their natural propensity for compassion. Think of all the things—the wants and traits and values—that will push and motivate your character, and how those things will potentially work together. But something MUST be compelling our characters to act and change, otherwise they either do nothing or are merely swept up in a plot that has no stakes for them.
So, with those three key components in mind, I created for myself a character template for Scrivener. It is pretty in depth. I used it to build the main cast of my next project, and it took me a long time. BUT, I found that the process worked really well. I would begin with a nebulous and vague notion of a character, and as I moved through the template I felt as if I really got to know these new characters. They now exist in my mind, fully complex, and already primed to grow with the plot.
Here’s how it goes:
I begin with broad strokes: general info about who they are, what they look like, and what they want. Character alignment is used in Dungeons & Dragons, and I think its a useful early tool for character development.
Next, I do their Myers Briggs Type. I find this a super useful tool to understand some of the basic workings of my character. Understanding these sorts of mechanics early helps me to write consistent characters. For example, if a character relies on Sensing over Intuition, they focus on the reality of their current situation rather than imagining all the ways that things could be different. This will be pertinent to how my character addresses challenges.
(In the Scrivener file, you can find lots of information in the document notes section to aid in filling out this part of the template. The “other examples” are pulled from, in order: Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Avatar the Last Airbender, Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, The Walking Dead, Marvel, and Star Wars.)
After I know their character type, I move on to development. I want to think about their goals, strengths, weaknesses, and knowledge at the beginning, during, and at the end. I want to build in lots of room for them to grow and change. Here, I’m liable to start making notes about potential plot points that can help my character shift in necessary ways.
Next up, fundamentals and background! I decide on their wants, fears, and beliefs, but I also consider how these underlying motivators manifest. It can be interesting to play with contradiction here, or to subvert expectations. A natural assumption might be to have a desire for wealth manifest in hard work and a fear of being alone manifest in consideration for loved ones. But a desire for wealth might just as well manifest in stinginess and jealousy, and a fear of being alone might cause a character to preemptively isolate himself, so as to be alone by choice rather than abandonment.
Love languages (again, in the document notes) are a good way of thinking ahead about how a character will show affection. Not everyone expresses love the same way.
Background is an important and—I think—fun step. What has happened to them in the past and how do those experiences inform their current state? I make a list of defining moments—memories that my characters will no doubt reflect on at some point in the story. Prejudices and affinities are also usually informed by one’s background.
Once I know my character’s personality type and background, it’s easy to isolate their character traits. I also consider which personality traits are the result of some prior experience and what are just an inherent part of the character’s identity. Those traits that are resultant could change if future experiences challenge past experiences; those that are inherent are much less likely to be altered. Once I know the character’s personality traits, I can decide how those traits manifest.
Character perception is also a really useful thing to consider in advance. Perhaps the character doesn’t change (or doesn’t change much) but as the reader comes to understand the character the reader’s perception shifts. For example, a character’s goals and personality traits might be largely negative but manifest in seemingly positive ways—it could take time for the reader to see the darkness that lurks beneath the surface layer. Victoria Aveyard did an amazing job with this in Red Queen. The way Mare, and by extension we the reader, feel about the two princes is a giant emotional rollercoaster. I still haven’t gotten over that twist.
The next two sections are pretty straight forward. Giving each character their own specific set of mannerisms helps to make them feel more distinct. I particularly like to think about how my characters behave under the influence of certain emotions, because ideally a cast of characters should not all express their embarrassment in exactly the same way, for example. If you can invent a few idiosyncratic mannerisms for a given emotion, it will be a very useful tool in the future; you can simultaneously represent a feeling with “showing” and reaffirm characterization. (Like Gansey and his thoughtful lip rubbing. If his fingers are on his lips, I know he’s thinking without being told, and I’m reminded of this (adorable) idiosyncrasy which makes him feel distinct.)
The Voice & Language section usually takes me some time to ponder, but it’s very useful to know in advance how a character speaks. There is nothing worse than a book in which all of the character sound exactly the same (unless it’s a book with switching first person in which all of the character sound exactly the same). So, I take the time to write out some dummy dialogue and to isolate a few phrases or non-standard usages for each character. I plan to continue expanding this section as I write, so it will be easier to be consistent. Preference and Relationships are probably self-explanatory. I used “likes” as it is nice a broad, as opposed to some templates which demand favorite colors and sports teams. Your character might not give a flying shit about having a favorite color, but he or she is going to like SOMETHING. Maybe a favorite food or a type of music or the smell of yeast because their dear departed mama was a baker. Whatever. But these are the kinds of details that help flesh out who this person is.
Next is things. Possessions and clothing are potentially great opportunities for characterization, whether it be a sentimental keepsake or a a garish hat that says a lot about their personal style and priorities (à la Lindsay Buroker’s Maldynado)
And, FINALLY, I end with 5 little-known facts. This gives me an opportunity to think up some details that perhaps don’t fit into any of the above categories, and to give the character some surprising elements—a few contradictions or secrets.
And that’s it. Like I said, it isn’t terribly fast. It takes me some time to figure all of this out. But so far, I’ve found that the characters I’ve produced using this template are truly interesting and dynamic—and, even more importantly, I am always excited to start writing them after completing this process. This is needlessly detailed for secondary and tertiary characters, so I also created a truncated version for characters who are less significant.
If you use Scrivener and you would like to give my template a try, I’ve included it below. To add these character templates to your Scrivener file first download and open the file provided. Then drag and drop the sheets into your templates folder. If you do not have a templates folder then drag over the folder and set it as the template folder, like so:
Then open up a new template and get to creating:
Download and unzip: Character Template