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  • Karina M. Sokulski

Writing a Character Study


Writing a compelling character is vital to any story. Providing your audience someone to root for and worry over is part of the experience every author wants to deliver to their readers. The key to achieving this lies with writing a character your audience can connect to. From proclaiming their least favorite flavors to confronting their worst nightmare, developing the details to portray a three-dimensional character is a must. For every writer, that is the intent but often the most challenging part of a story. There’s nothing more frustrating that having, say, a dynamic world established but a leading character that still needs work.

Chances are you’ve spent hours either on Google or Pinterest looking up literally hundreds of character development worksheets to fill out, only to wish they had one more category. There’s also the chance, that you’ve tried making your own but lost yourself in the designing involved and forgot all about writing. If this even remotely sounds like you, I have good news. Accepting that the part of my brain that graphic designs professionally (if you’re interested click here {X}) infringes on my writing at the worst of times, I’ve decided to get back to the basics. Writing a character study with only the writing utensil of my choice and a notebook complete with paper is the way to go.

Sometimes, the old ways are best.


Since my university years, I always have preferred the most straightforward method of collecting data: outlining. I’m not the most organized person so my writing process revolves around easy to flip through chicken-scratch lists. My character studies look no different when I write them out but simplicity is a virtue and keeps me writing. To start, here’s a template of what my character study will look like when I've written it:


Name: [character name]

-[Name meaning/indication of personality trait]


Physical Appearance:

-[Physical trait/texture/scars/marks],

-[Physical trait/texture/scars/marks],

-[Physical trait/texture/scars/marks]


Other features:

-[Eye color/height/ect.]


Body Type:

-[Literal/"not/is athlete"]


Personality:

-[enjoyments/dislikes]

-[Confidence gained from enjoyments]

-[insecurities gained from dislikes]


Habits:

-[action/visual]

-[explain anxiety driven habits]

-[action/visual]

-[explain excitement driven habits]


Behaviors:

-[protective/possessive behaviors]


Body language:

-[fluid/non-fluid motion]

[explain type of movement]


Flaws:

-[trait]

[explain why this trait bothers the character to have]

-[trait]

[explain why this trait bothers the character to have]


Backstory:

-[quick/short setting visual]

[explain how environment has affected character's early development]

-[insecurities regarding past/present/future-establish fear character will confront by end of story]

 The list can be expanded, but these represent the most basic categories I usually stick to. You’ll notice I’ve included an extra layer to the categories of habits, behaviors and flaws that I’ve always felt were lacking from advice on writing characters that I’ve received. Naming flaws and describing behaviors is all fine and good, but I like including a layer of explaining not only where the behavior stems from but how the character feels about doing it. Does your character hate chewing on their nails but they just can’t stop? Or is pacing around in a circle the only way they can calm down? Or are they indifferent but annoyed when other characters call them out on it? Explaining each of these traits and behaviors will improve your understanding of your character, down to the smallest detail. The more understanding you gain from your character study, the better off you'll be. You’ll also have your list to glance at for reminders of what behaviors your characters should be exhibiting under what circumstances.

 The same added layer of explaining each detail in setting has been applied to the backstory category. Again, establishing setting is always important but I don’t often see or hear advice on exploring how a character was molded by the environment of their upbringing. Once you’ve offered a brief summary on this element, proceed with a list of insecurities they’ve developed as a result. Is your character scared of what the future might bring? Is the present a miserable one that seemingly can’t change? Or are they haunted by an event of the past? Bear one very important thought in mind when filling in this last point on your list: this point on your list should reflect what your character will be struggling with throughout the plot. It’s critical to establish that here because this point on your list will serve as a helpful reminder to invest in this fear throughout the story. Regardless of whether your character overcomes this fear or loses out to it in the end, you’ll need to actively revisit to this struggle.

This character study should also help you to consider how many characters is “too many.” Sometimes I’ll find two side characters looking too alike on paper and realize I can combine them into one. Other times, I’ll discover which of my characters are memorable and which aren’t. More than anything, when you’re confident about the cast you’ve created and proceed to write, it’s convenient to have your lists within reach. I have a little notebook dedicated to my character studies, sectioned off with page flags to separate the characters by their role in the story. First the protagonist, followed by the antagonist, then their respective side characters and so on. Whatever method you chose, having a list of reminders always makes the process of writing your characters easier.

So that valid question to follow once you’ve started, and or completed, your character sketch is: what now? At this stage, I don’t habitually have my plot outlined or that story completely figured out. In fact, most of the time I never do because I’m the kind of writer who allows the story tell me.I do however, make sure to have two very clear steps established before I start writing:


-How the characters will interact with one another in the plot


-My end goal


Once I settle on my cast, I’ll proceed to briefly summarize the character’s relationships to one another. By this pointI’ve already established characters’ roles in the story and segregated which side characters revolve around the antagonist and protagonist. Now my job is to briefly summarize how my protagonist receives and treats their allies. The same is done for my antagonist and how both groups interacting with one another can be used to forward the plot. Maybe the antagonist and protagonist are on opposing sides of a turf war and, joined by their allies, are trying to dominate one another. Each interaction is significant as they will inevitably end with either a victory, defeat or stalemate. The tension from all three will write itself.

Once I’ve accomplished this, I move on to my end goal. Not knowing the ending of your story is perfectly fine and not required to complete this step. My end goal is always where I intend my character interactions to lead. An example of this could be: one of my characters is a spy in a group who is trying to expose a murderer among them. The murderer in question is aware there’s a spy but doesn’t know who it is. Will the spy expose the murderer without detection? Or will the murderer figure them out first and add a body to their count? Heck if I know, but I know I’m working towards answering those questions. Your end goal doesn’t have to be the ending of your story. Your end goal can be a statement, some questions or your stance on any belief. The important element to establish here, is what you want to do with the characters you’ve studied.

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