As I mentioned a few blog posts back, I asked around on Twitter if there was anything anyone wanted me to write about on my blog (PS- hit me up in the comments if you have ideas), and one of my Twitter peeps asked if I ever use character sheets and if so, how detailed are they. Today’s post will be about how I develop my main characters.
To answer the question very succinctly before I run headlong into segue-ville, no, I do not use character sheets.
The reason being is that I find them overwhelming. Back when I was in college and writing The Earl of Brass, I downloaded a bunch of DnD and roleplay-based character sheets because they were super detailed, which is great until detailed becomes overwhelming. The problem I found with most character sheets is that I found the most of the details to be inconsequential. Does it matter what my character’s favorite food is or when their birthday is exactly? Usually, no. Yes, favorite color can be symbolic or be used as a signature color (like Emmeline and purple in my books), but more often than not, the vast majority of the favorite x type questions did not actually inform who my characters are. I remember a Youtuber I watch mentioning character sheets and how if you put real people into them, the details don’t make sense. Her example was that her very prim and proper grandma loved a very macho movie. Just listing that didn’t explain anything; it was just sort of a weird quirk on an otherwise normal sheet. First and foremost, I think of my characters as real people and treat them as such throughout the generation process. They are not tropes, they are not cardboard cutouts, they are people with wants, needs, idiosyncrasies, anxieties, and a past that informs their present. A character sheet doesn’t get to the heart of who they are, so the question then is, how do we figure that out?
What comes first: the plot or the characters?
For me, often the characters do, which I think informs this process more than you would think. I’m not shoehorning characters into a situation but building the situation from the characters. I have a necromancer and his undead love (Oliver and Felipe from The Reanimator’s Heart). How did they end up here? Were they partnered up before the story takes place or during? I ask a lot of questions early on to figure out how we got to the point where the story will theoretically start (or the first point of no return/doorway in plot terms). This allows an organic plot to form out of who these people are. What happens for me when I work the opposite way with plot first, characters second is that I end up fudging who the characters are to fit into the idea I had. This leads to stiff, 2D characters who are trying to be something they’re not because they are hemmed in by the plot. I think this is often why detective fiction requires sort of flat, stagnant characters. They need to fit into the litany of mysteries they need to solve rather than having their stories fit/inform them. And that’s fine for that genre, but that isn’t what I write. When dealing with stories that are very emotion heavy, psychology driven, and character oriented, the characters need to come before the plot.
Kara’s #1 important character element for creating realistic characters
Okay, that is a bit of hyperbole, but there is one thing I tend to think about more than anything else when building my main characters and that is their background. The character’s history/background informs who they are when the story takes place. Years of life have left their marks on this character, for good or for bad, and these things show through in what they do daily, their internal monologue, their wounds, their goals, etc. Their world view is tainted by their past, and the clearer I can see that past, the easier it is to figure out how they would react to the current circumstances (especially in a way that makes sense to them). If all your characters seem to react the same way to everything, that’s probably because you aren’t paying attention to their psychology and you might be relying more on your experiences.
Some of you out there are like, “Kara, these aren’t real people. I shouldn’t apply psychology to them.” Well, we want our characters to be realistic, we want them to feel like real people, and real people are informed by their past history. People aren’t a blank slate on any given day, and your characters don’t spring forth on page one as a blank slate either.
I will say that I don’t sit down and outline everything in their lives so far. I like to leave room in case I need to add something as a book or series goes on. KJ Charles talked about this on her blog once, that for your own sanity as a writer, leave blanks and don’t tell readers everything to keep from repeatedly boxing yourself into a corner. You can know all these things, but your readers don’t have to until it’s absolutely necessary. When I build my characters, I usually play around with them a bit to get their general personality, then I start to think about how we got here. Here’s an example using Oliver from The Reanimator’s Heart:
Things that inform Oliver’s identity most from his life/past: orphaned fairly young and was raised by his grandma, the many misunderstandings in his life due to him being neurodivergent, break-ups due to ND traits, being gay in the 1800s, having to leave his job as a doctor due to *REDACTED SPOILER* reasons
Notice that I don’t have a whole laundry list of key events, just the few things that would impart some complexes/wounds on a person. Once we have those wounds, we can figure out the natural trajectory for complications and reactions. Social interactions go wrong a lot, so he avoids them. When he does have them, he tends to over-explain during or over-think after. Note the logical progression from past to wound to behavior. These wounds are things that can heal during the story, but they will still inform the character’s behavior. There will still be days when doubt or low self-esteem come creeping back to cause problems, just like in real people.
Now that we have the biggest chunk of who the character is, what else do we need?
The hierarchy of character building
This is less about what you should do first and more about what informs the things below it.
- Psychology/backstory- see previous chunk for that
- What do they want/need?- these are the things that drive this character in your story toward their internal and external goals. The internal goal is also usually informed by their psychology. Whether he knows it or not, Oliver really needs acceptance, which is caused by his past bad experiences.
- Their personality- how this character behaves is informed by everything above. A character’s personality and likes/dislikes are obviously important because it differentiates them from everyone else, but it has to make sense with their psychology/backstory and what they want/need. This is also something that is easier to change based on those other two things.
- Their appearance- typically, this is the least important aspect of a character’s being UNLESS it plays into the plot/conflict. Generally though, whether a character has brown v. black hair or curly v. wavy hair really doesn’t make a difference in the big scheme of things. The good thing is if you have all of the above aspects fleshed out, you can tailor your main character to fit even better into the story you’re creating. For example, Oliver is awkward and a necromancer, so to make him even more of a weird character, I gave him very stark coloring (very pale, very dark hair, very grey eyes) which highlights those dead and otherworldly ties.
Now that you’ve learned how I develop my characters, I hope you can take at least some of what you learned here and use it within your own work. As always, writing is a very individual process, and what works for me may not work for you. If you have any questions or would like to know more about a certain aspect, hit me up in the comments or on social media.