There are a few things you absolutely need to keep consistent when you create a character. Appearance, age, and the character arc. Filling out this simple form will give you an easy, at-a-glance reference that helps you keep all these things straight. (If you’re interested in this specific form, click on the graphic to download it to use as-is or manipulate for your own needs.)
The first column is simply the characters’ names. Make sure you write first and last. This will keep you from changing the spelling or the last name (which isn’t mentioned frequently) later in the story. Once you have a row for each main character, color code them so they are easy to distinguish. And if you write in Scrivener, you can use that same color to define the character, making it easy to see which scene is in which character’s POV.
The second through fourth columns are all about appearance.
- Column 2—Eyes
Add the color and any identifying features, like large, close-set, beady, long-lashes, thick eyeliner, etc.
- Column 3—Hair
Go a little farther than hair color. Include the style (curly, wavy, straight), the length (short, shoulder length, close-cropped, bald, etc.), and if the character does anything specific to it (adds gel, braids it for work, etc.)
- Column 4—Build
Refer to height and stature here. Saying 6’4″ is better than saying tall, but either can be helpful. Stature (like willowy, athletic, portly, etc.) is also a convenient detail to include.
The next column is for quirks. It’s kind of nice for each of the main characters to have one. Remember in Guys and Dolls when Sister Sarah kept unbuttoning the second button in her jacket as a nervous gesture? That’s the kind of detail I’m talking about. Having a quirk makes it easy to relay the character’s emotional state without out saying “she felt nervous” (blech). Give each main character a different quirk, unless you’re trying to establish a family trait or intentional mimicry. This column will help you keep them all straight.
The final two columns help you define the character arc. A character needs conflict to both be interesting and to advance plot.
- The internal issue deals with emotional problems. An adopted child may grow to have abandonment issues. Someone who had a bad breakup may find it hard to commit.
- The external issue deals with physical limitations. It could be a disability of some kind (like blindness) or it could be an obstacle to overcome (a mountain to climb).
Giving a character one (or even better, both) makes for a full, rich character and aids in plot advancement and character arc development. And if you can give an internal and external issue that contradicts each other (like an agoraphobic person who has to cross the country to save a loved one), all the better.
If you want to leave a category off or add categories to this, great! Customize to your heart’s content. But creating a sheet that helps you keep track of character traits will make it much easier for you to avoid description errors while remembering their motivations and challenges.
Next time, we’ll go over settings.