Free, downloadable ‘cheat sheet’ to use when you’re creating characters.
You’re watching your favourite TV series, halfway through a great book or nearing the end of an enjoyable movie, when all of a sudden a character does something that doesn’t feel right. The woman who’s been fighting to prevent a multinational fast food outlet from establishing in her town agrees when her abusive ex-husband asks for shared custody of the kids. The murdering psychopath suddenly adopts a stray kitten. You turn to the person next to you and say “the character just wouldn’t do that.”
The metaphor of an iceberg is often used to describe character development. Over 90 per cent of an iceberg’s volume and mass is below water. What your reader or audience sees of your character is the 10 per cent of the ‘iceberg’ that sits above the surface. In order to create well-drawn, compelling characters and avoid the ‘they just wouldn’t do that’ reaction, you need to know much more about them than will ever appear on the page.
I’ve created a free, downloadable character development ‘cheat sheet’ that you can use when you’re developing your characters. You can read on for more detailed information, or you can download the character worksheet here. Feel free to adapt the cheat sheet to suit your needs, or let me know if you think of any categories I’ve missed.
Character development worksheet
A name reveals clues about your character’s age, gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic background. The names Rosemary Barr-Scott, Hamish Waipara and Jayden Smith all conjure up different ideas. Rosemary is possibly an older lady, Hamish is probably of Māori descent and Jayden is likely to be fairly young.
What’s their gender, nationality, ethnicity, skin colour, eye colour, hair colour and hairstyle? What kind of perfume or aftershave do they wear? What’s their posture like? How do they move?
Do they stride quickly, accidentally banging other people with their briefcase as they walk down the street? Do they move slowly and deliberately? Do they get mistaken for a dancer? A sumo wrestler? For Brad Pitt?
Everyone has some health problems, what are theirs? What are the parts of their body that they like and dislike?
Do they rely on glasses, a hearing aid or a cane? Do they suffer from asthma, diabetes or dandruff? Do they love their long, graceful neck but hate their thick ankles? Do they look immaculate except for the tobacco stain on their fingers?
What clothing and jewellery do they wear?
What they wear and how they wear it reveals character. Do they have a small wardrobe of expensive pieces, or do they prefer cheap and cheerful fashion from chain stores? Do their shoes shine or are they scuffed? What kind of jewellery do they wear? A Claddagh ring might point to Celtic ancestry. A diamond necklace denotes ostentatious wealth.
What are their favourite turns of phrase? What does their voice sound like?
Do they have an accent, a stutter? Do they use big words out of context because they’re trying to seem smart? Do they speak in grunts?
What physical ticks do they have?
Do they tug their hair when they’re nervous? Clear their throat before saying something emotional? Unconsciously open and close their fists during tense work meetings? Do they have a fixed, unblinking gaze or do they look at the carpet when they talk? Mannerisms reveal a lot about a person’s confidence and inner state.
How smart is your character? Do they have any mental illness or neurological disorders?
How smart are they, and how smart do they think they are? What kind of intelligence do they have – are they book smart, street smart, or are they skilled at reading people? Do they suffer from depression, anxiety, Asperger’s? Do they have any phobias, fetishes or obsessions?
Character flaws / weaknesses
What does your character dislike about themselves? What would the character’s employer, family members or friends dislike about them?
Are they a strident right-wing politician and supporter of big business who secretly fears they might be destined for Hell? Do their co-workers hate them because they’re lazy and a braggart? Your character’s biggest flaw will often be connected to their goal.
What do other people love about them? What do they love about themselves? What quality is going to help them overcome their obstacles?
Spiritual and political beliefs
What kind of religion did the character grow up with, if any? Are they still devout or has their faith lapsed? Perhaps they found or switched faith later in life? Perhaps they’re more spiritual than religious, preferring to embrace yoga and meditation?
What political party does your character vote for (if any), and why?
Occupation and hobbies
What’s your character’s occupation? Is it their dream job or did they get there by chance? Does it fulfil them personally or is it just a way to pay the bills?
What does your character do in their free time? Do they visit family, travel around the country, participate in roller derby tournaments or dissect hedgehogs?
What’s their income and socio economic status, and what’s their attitude towards money?
Are they miserly, prudent or extravagant? What do they like to splash out on?
Is your character’s self-talk positive or negative? Do they reveal their inner voice through their dialogue, or are what they think and what they say quite different things?
Perhaps your character is outwardly helpful and polite, but inwardly pictures themselves violently attacking their co-workers. Or perhaps they’re pretending to be something that they’re not – a minister who’s lost their faith in God, or a physical trainer who binges on frozen cheesecake every night.
What personality traits does your character have? What qualities do they most admire and despise in others?
Do they live in the past, present, future, or in their imagination? Are they empathetic or sociopathic? Vengeful or Zen? What do they find funny? Are they good at influencing other people, or would they rather eat worms than suck up to someone they don’t like?
How does your character deal with their emotions?
How does your character react when they’re stressed, angry, ecstatic, embarrassed, pleased, heartbroken, thwarted?
Does your character drink, smoke or take drugs? What’s their favourite beverage? Favourite food?
Are they a meat eater or a vegan? Do they get their clothes ready for the next day before they go to bed, or do they rush in the mornings and end up eating their toast in the shower?
What secrets does your character have? Who are they hiding them from, and why?
How does your character treat other people?
Does your character pull out all the stops for their boss but yell at their local check-out chick? Do they buy food for homeless people? Do they blast dance music until the early hours of the morning?
What kind of family did your character grow up with?
Did the character grow up with both their mother and father? What were their parents’ occupations? Does / did your character have a good relationship with the people who raised them? Did they have siblings? What did they particularly love and hate about their family while they were growing up? Was their family strict or nurturing? What was their socio economic status? Did they have any special family traditions / rituals?
Where did they grow up?
What school did they go to? Have they had any tertiary education?
What is their goal in the context of your narrative?
What does your character want to achieve? What are they willing to sacrifice for their goal?
What do they need?
What do they need that they may not be aware of? What’s driving them?
What a character wants and needs can often be quite different things. Fred might want to criminalise homosexuality. He might need to address the fact that he’s gay and come to accept himself and others.
What’s standing in your character’s way?
Do they have a mean boss at work? A girlfriend who doesn’t believe in them? Is there a dragon between them and the pot of gold? What are the barriers between your character and their success?
What suburb does your character live in? What kind of home do they have, and how is it furnished?
Do they have a dark, dusty villa filled with treasured objects? Do they have a light, airy and modern apartment? Is this their ideal home, and if not, how would they really like to live?
Is your character gay or straight or somewhere in between? Does your character have a partner, kids, or a group of friends? What are these key players like, and how does your character relate to them?
How do they see themselves, how do they believe they are perceived by others, and how are they actually perceived?
Perhaps your character perceives themselves as being very kind and considerate. They are sure that other people see them as being very helpful and caring. But other people think your character is too much of a martyr – so much so that they find your character annoying.
Now that you’ve developed your ‘iceberg’ you can write your narrative with the confidence that you know how your character will react in any given situation – and avoid the ‘they just wouldn’t do that’ effect.
2023 Burns fellow Kathryn van Beek has an MA from Victoria University Wellington - Te Herenga Waka’s International Institute of Modern Letters. She is a winner of the Mindfood Short Story Competition and the Headland Prize. Her collection of short stories, Pet, is available as a podcast, and her work has also appeared in Overland, takahē, Newsroom, and the Sunday Star-Times. She lives in UNESCO City of Literature Ōtepoti Dunedin with her two rescue cats.