Category Archives: Character

3 Basic Steps to a Character Sketch

Have an idea for a story but need a star character? Here are three basic steps to building your character sketch with bonus material to help you out in the process:
  1. Finding Your Character
  2. Finding Your Character’s NameJennifer Lawrence, Entertainment Weekly, May 27, 2011
  3. Making Your Character Real

Let’s look at how Suzanne Collins did this for her title character, Katniss Aberdeen, in the novel The Hunger Games.

Character Sources

There are four sources from which you can find a character.

Four Sources for Character

Collins got the idea for her character from the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur in which Athens had to send seven youths and seven maidens to Crete every year where they were devoured by the half-man, half-bull creature. Then one year Theseus went with the youths and maidens and destroyed the Minotaur. Collins has said that Katniss is like a futuristic Theseus.

After you find your character, it’s time to give him or her a name.

Character Names

There are also four sources from which you can find a character name.

Four Sources for Character Names

Katniss is one of the few names explained in
the novel. In a flashback scene with herSagittarius, the Archer father, Katniss is told that her name is from a flower with nourishing roots, is also known as “arrowhead,” and belongs to the genus Sagittaria. The genus name comes from the constellation, Sagittarius, an archer, which also fits Katniss’ impressive bow-and-arrow skills.

One of my favorite places to find names is an online source, 20,000+ Names From Around the World. The names are categorized by country,
language, and meaning, which can really inspire a character’s personality.

The last step in this basic process is making your character real. If you have a story idea already, you may know where the story is taking place or have a thought about the conflict involved. If not, this is the next step.

Real Characters

You want to make the character seem like a real person, but you need three parts to fit together. These are:

  • Setting
  • Conflict
  • Motivation

Setting

The character must exist somewhere, which is the place and time of your story. In The Hunger Games, the setting place was Panem (North America) and the setting time was the future.

Conflict

The character must have a problem to work through, which is the conflict of your story. Conflict is the struggle between opposing forces. After volunteering to take her sister’s place in The Hunger Games, Katniss has to learn to survive inside the arena against other children.

Motivation

The character must have some inner motivation, some goal he or she wants from life. A character’s motivation is usually that which propels him or her into the story’s conflict. In The Hunger Games, Katniss’ motivation is to make sure her family survives—has daily food and water and stays safe. This same motivation is what compels her to volunteer in place of her sister. Katniss wants to keep her sister safe.

Now that you have an idea of how to start a basic character sketch, let’s do one!
  1. Download the worksheet, Character Sketch.
  2. Find a picture—a stranger, a movie star, a family member, a friend—and add it to the worksheet.
  3. Find a name. Look at name and baby name sites online or open a phone book and choose a name.
  4. Now decide on your setting, conflict, and motivation. If you want help choosing either the setting or conflict, click on any one picture under each heading below to find a random element. For motivation, try to think of common things like fame, fortune, greed, envy, security, etc.
Setting – Time
Setting (Time) - Anniversary Setting (Time) - Evening Setting (Time) - New Year's Eve Setting (Time) - Winter
Setting – Place
Setting (Place) - Sauna Setting (Place) - Art Gallery Setting (Place) - Airplane Setting (Place) - A Checkout Counter
Conflict
Slide16 Slide19 Slide20 Slide21
Here is an example of my character sketch:
Example Character Sketch

Now it’s your turn!

And remember, your character sketch is just a starting point, so once you’re done, begin writing your story! Also, if you would like an objective set of eyes to look at your writing, try my Just Editing & Writing Critique services where you’re guaranteed to receive an honest review of your work.

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3 Character Development Mistakes You’re Probably Making

Having characters in your story is pretty important as they can make or break it, but could you be making any of these three mistakes?

1. Choosing the wrong name.

There are two tests that the name you pick for your character is wrong:

A. Your readers don’t accept it.
B. Deep down, you don’t accept it.

Readers won’t accept a name for a character for several reasons:

  • It’s overly weird (Zaydid)
  • It already belongs to someone famous (Paris Hilton)
  • It sounds like all the other names in the story (John, Jane, Jack)
  • Its Androgynous (Pat, Sam)

What about when you don’t accept the name? And I don’t mean that you feel this way immediately, after all, you picked the name because something drew you to it. But maybe your character has evolved past the original name.Image

This happened to me.

I loved my main character, Starla. I wrote Starla’s story over and over, allowing the world she lived in to evolve into a complex setting which provided the motivation for Starla to change as the plot unfolded. Unfortunately, the name I started with happened to come from my nine-year-old mind. By the time the full story emerged, my twenty-something mind knew that Starla had outgrown her name and she became Shay.

Like me, you may not accept your character’s name because you have an intuitive sense that the name exerts an unconscious influence on the course of the character’s life. The Roman’s had the expression nomen est omen, or “name is destiny.” Your character’s name may be taking your character places that you weren’t intending, and now it’s time to change it.

Here are some tips on creating the right name:

  • The name can be exotic or different, just make sure your reader can say it.
  • Don’t choose common or famous names.
  • With a full cast of characters, make sure to differentiate all the names.
  • Pick names that can tell the reader at first glance whether your character is a boy or girl—it will save the reader the headache of trying to figure that out when they should be concentrating on the story instead. (*There are exceptions to this, like if your character is the only one in the story.)
  • Choose a name that fits your character, one that can grow with your character’s arc, but doesn’t take the story away from your control. Unless you want that! 🙂

2. Not having a character profile.

Having a full profile on characters is not for everyone. Some people prefer to discover their characters through writing. But how do you keep the facts straight?

I bet those writers have some notes somewhere on their characters, or at least on their main character. It could be a sticky note under the keyboard!

When writing a longer story with a full cast of characters, having a character profile becomes almost essential. After all, you don’t want to present a character at the beginning of the story who loves dogs, always wears mismatched socks, and doesn’t have a boyfriend, and then, in the next chapter the character throws away a free dog magnet, refuses to wears socks at all, and has been married for ten years (unless you have good reason for the character’s change—like skipping ahead in time which could later justify the character’s personality reversal).

Having a basic character profile can help you keep the facts straight and keep your reader clear from confusion.ImageImage

Here are the basics of character profile:

  • Appearance
  • Background
  • Family, Friend, & Enemies
  • Likes & Dislikes
  • Positive & Negative Character Traits
  • Desires & Fears

3. Forgetting about your character’s own desires and motivations.

The first two points are about keeping control of your character by making sure you have the right name and a profile to keep the facts straight, but in the end the character will reveal him or herself to you on the page as you surround the character with obstacles. I know this sounds like the character takes over at this point, but in reality, you are still in control.Image

But this is a different type of control. If you know your character inside and out (which you will from the first two points), then you will know what your character desires and his or her motivations.

So, if Shay is confronted with the scene of a shoplifting teenager, I know Shay will walk up to that teenager and slip a few dollar bills into his hand, but Starla would probably hide behind the next row of chips and gum.

I’m letting Shay reveal who she is by her actions, yet I understand those actions are governed by my time spent on her character development.

All the characters you create will emerge with their own desires and motivations, which evolve from the traits you give to your cast. Let them show who you’ve created in your writing. After all, that is the best way for your readers to get to know how great your characters are!

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Using Dialogue to Reveal Character

Dialogue is conversation. To create good dialogue that brings a character alive and engages the reader’s attention, we must slip into each character that is speaking. As with most things that are written into pages of a story, dialogue should serve a purpose. One of those purposes is to reveal character. At first, new writers don’t realize how effective dialogue can be as a character-revealing tool. Dialogue can be used to show a description of a person (“Did you add highlights to your hair?”), it can dramatize tension (“I despise you!”), it can show a character’s thoughts or feelings (“I can’t wait until we get grandma’s house to see the new kitten.”), and it can show a character’s motivation. Words from a character’s mouth can tell a reader a whole lot.

Let’s look at this example.

Dialogue to Reveal Character_Pic 1 (6-16-14)

The questions to ask are, what purpose does this dialogue serve and does it characterize either character? Here is my response.

Dialogue to Reveal Character_Pic 2 (6-16-14)

Here is how the revision may look. Think about the successes of this new work compared to the first draft.

Dialogue to Reveal Character_Pic 3 (6-16-14)

This revision is much improved as far as revealing the characters. In this short exchange, the reader can reach several conclusions.

One, each character speaks in his or her own way shown by the specific words chosen for each character, which lends to characterization. David is given to using slang when he speaks, while Sally is a little more formal. The stranger, on the other hand, is amused and makes a joke at David’s expense. Just remember that the way a character speaks should stay consistent, so that readers can expect that the assumptions they’ve made about the kind of person each of the characters are stay the same throughout the story.

Two, the relationship between Sally and David does not seem overly friendly or they may be friends (or more) who are at odds with each other. It’s obvious that these two characters know each—they’re sitting together at a restaurant—but Sally’s response to David’s declaration can be taken several ways. Either she is correcting David’s speech by repeating his sentence more formally or she is questioning his declaration as if she did not understand his spoken words. With either motivation behind her response, Sally is mocking David’s speech.

It could be that Sally doesn’t really understand David, and in that case, that tells the reader a lot about Sally—if slang confuses her, then she must have had led quite a sheltered life up to this point.

Third is the beat before David’s spoken text. The beat is also known as action tags. When characters speak, their communication is enhanced with actions. Facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures, and other body language help signal the character’s intention. They also help writers subtly weave the character’s thoughts and feelings into the scene.

In this scene, David’s beat of curling his lip shows his own disdain towards Sally. This builds on the reader’s presumption that while Sally and David may know each, they have a relationship that is on edge. Sally’s correction of David’s use of slang and David’s facial expression does not indicate mutual respect is shared between the two characters—at least, not at this moment. Without the context of the whole story, we don’t know if Sally and David may have just had a fight or if their relationship is deteriorating.

Last, we have the stranger’s remark. It’s likely that this line of dialogue is not meant to characterize the stranger, but it may serve many different purposes. One, it indicates that the setting is not populated with slang-wielding characters like David, so, David may be out of his element in the restaurant.

Two, the fact the stranger feels at ease enough to make a joke may indicate that if David and Sally just had an argument, it likely happened before the scene occurred because if the two had just had words, most people would not intrude with a flippant remark.

Three, this line of dialogue could serve the purpose of furthering the scene’s motivation. At this point, David’s response to the stranger would indicate a release of tension or it could heighten the tension. Either way, the stranger’s words are likely to provoke a response which adds to the restaurant scene in some way. Is there anything else you think this dialogue reveals about the characters?

EXERCISE: Go to a public place and jot down the conversation around you. What can you observe about how people use dialogue? What can you learn about people just from what is said?