Saturday, May 8, 2010

18 Character Worksheet: Is Your Main Character Worthy of a Novel?

Since a lot of  you seemed to find my complications worksheet useful, I'm going to also share the character worksheet I use. Fair warning though, it's long and complicated. I'll add some discussion and break it down into several different posts. You can download the whole thing as a pdf document here:

I've also done an updated worksheet which is here:

No matter how well you have written or plotted your novel, your characters are crucial. When you put your book in the hands of a reader, you are asking them to live with those characters for a minimum five or six hours, possibly a lot more. Ideally, you would like your characters to stay with readers forever.

Characters don't need a lot of words to be memorable. There are many unforgettable characters in picture books, for example, or even poems. But a protag for an MG or YA novel needs to be interesting and distinct enough to carry the reader through anything from 35,000 to 135,000 words. I have found that if I don't have the character firmly and properly developed in my own head before starting to write, no matter how thoroughly I've done my plotting, I am afflicted with mid-novel slump.

To avoid this, I've started doing a worksheet for every major character, whether she is the protag, the antag, a foil, a ficelle, a minion, a threshold guardian or whatever. The worksheet covers the basics of fleshing any character out and making her unique.

When it comes to the main character or the main antagonist though, I need to do more than just list characteristics, quirks, and history. I have to ask myself whether that character can carry a whole novel. Is she:
  • Heroic or courageous enough to fight against adversity?
  • Goal-driven, focused, or passionate enough about something to make her fight for it?
  • Willing to persevere with dignity no matter how much crap you throw in her path?
  • Quintessentially the personification of whatever trait you have given her? The only half-werewolf? The strongest demi-god? The ultimate bully? The most downtrodden stepdaughter? The biggest loser?
Does she:
  • Respond actively enough to her surroundings to make her interesting to read about?
  • Embrace opportunities when they present themselves?
  • Make things happen instead of waiting for them to happen to her?
  • Have both strengths and weaknesses (hopefully related to each other in some way)? What are they?
The character doesn't have to get a 'yes' answer for each and every question to be novel worthy, but I know that I end up in trouble if I miss more than a few.

Supporting characters don't have to have as many 'yes' answers. But they do have to be unique, and there has to be a reason for them to be there. When doing a character worksheet for a supporting character, I especially want to ask myself if she:
  • Provides a task or tasks essential to the plot?
  • Adds necessary humor or comic relief?
  • Coaxes out or highlight the protag's strength?
  • Adds complications to the protag's struggle or journey?
When a novel starts to slump, when the writing isn't going smoothly, or begins to seem like a chore instead of a pleasure, I find that going back to my character worksheets often helps me find the problem.

Happy character building,


P.S. Read Part Two of the Series Here:

And here are some links for additional information on building better characters:

Larger-than-Life-Characters by agent Sarah Davies
Donald Maass Character Checklist by Kathy Temean
Strong Heroes, Even Stronger Motivations by Jeannie Campbell
Creating Memorable Characters by Lee Masterson
Are you in Pain? Question for your character? by Darcy Pattison
Mentors and the Hero's Journey by Stephen Turner
Seven Common Character Types by Terri W. Erwin, II
Creating Villains People Love to Hate by Lee Masterson
The Other in Fiction: Creating Wonderfully Wicked Villains by Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD

About the Author

Martina Boone is the author of Compulsion and Persuasion, out now in the romantic Southern Gothic Heirs of Watson Island trilogy from Simon & Schuster, Simon Pulse. Illusion, the final book, will be out in October of 2016. Martina is also the founder of, a three-time Writer's Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers Site, and, a site dedicated to encouraging literacy and reader engagement through a celebration of series literature. She's on the Board of the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia and runs the program to distribute books to underfunded schools and libraries.


  1. Great work Martina!
    Donald Maass is fabulous and I know one or two others. Most of these links are new to me though!

    SHERLOCK HOLMES...your delving for information is simply astounding!



  2. Awesome tips & advice :) I especially like the part about not waiting for things to happen!

  3. Great post with so much helpful advice. I really struggle with developing my characters and is why I've had to revise my book so many times. Looking forward to your other posts on the subject.

  4. Thanks guys. Hope it's helpful! Natalie, download the worksheet and check out the dialogue tags, quirks, and places to put in your astrology and personality types information. You'll have your character built in no time!

  5. Thought the worksheet extremely comprehensive. Often you see the physical characteristics and brief family history on checklists, but yours goes above and beyond. Thanks!

  6. Thanks for this and the great advice over on my blog.

  7. Great stuff, very useful; I'll try to learn all of it by heart >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  8. That is so amazingly detailed! I haven't even considered making a worksheet just for character development. Wow. Thanks for the idea!

  9. Wow! Awesome character-building guidelines, Martina! Thanks for posting such great advice. : )

  10. I'm glad you found this useful! I am hoping to post installment #2 tomorrow.

  11. Thanks for all the great links and suggestions. :D

  12. Definitely going to bookmark this one for future reference. Thanks for the advice and all the links! I've done charcter "interviews" but I know I could put more work into my characters and get more out of them as a result

  13. I LOVE your worksheet. I'm going to use it for every character in my WIP. The details like mannerisms and common phrases will really help bring them alive. Thank you!

  14. Wonderful information! I found you thanks to Elizabeth Spann Craig. Glad I wandered by! Thank you for this!


  15. Great worksheet. Great for character fleshing-out, and world building, too.

    Very cool.

  16. How much thought to character development do you give to shorter stories such as those that appear in magazines?

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  18. Great timing! This round of edits, my critique groups are working on characterization. I'll be sure to tweet and FB fan this post.


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