Tuesday, May 18, 2010

19 Quirks Are Character Life Support: Character Worksheet Part 3

Making a character true to life while simultaneously making her larger than life is one of the hardest tricks a writer has to pull off. Success requires balancing strengths and weaknesses, and introducing sympathy and lovable, memorable quirks. In the two earlier sections of our Character Worksheet series, I focused on building a novel-worthy character and making her quintessential. In this post, I'm going to describe how to use the worksheet to make the character unique and deeply essential to the action. That requires even deeper characterization and backstory.

The characters that stay with you, those who burrow into your heart and stay forever, not only have strengths and weaknesses, they also have passions, hobbies, and habits you will remember long after you finish reading. And the best characters, the ones that ring the truest, are usually those whose quirks, passions, strengths and weaknesses all work together in a way that drives the plot of the story.

Jane Austen deliciously carried character traits to just beyond extreme, and ensured that those traits directly led to problems. Beautiful Creatures, one of the richest YA novels I've read recently, has a whole cast of wonderfully quirky characters. The superstitions of Amma, the crossword puzzling, pencil-wielding housekeeper, turn out to be pivotal to the MC's survival. Lena's obsessive graffiti habit and the memory necklace that lets her take her childhood with her from place to place make her unique, but the graffiti also serves as a clock that ticks up the tension as you read toward the climax. Uncle Macon does a wonderful Cary Grant gone vampire/incubus, but he's also brilliantly, dangerously self-sacrificing in a way that is pivotal to the story.

Events shouldn't happen to your characters. Your characters must create events. And yes, that's true even in a plot-driven novel.

To Create Essential Characteristics and Characters

Quirks and hobbies make your characters unique. Paddington Bear loves marmelade. Atticus Finch never lets himself be seen without a vest and tie. Traits like this help round out the characters, but you develop a quintessential character by picking one character trait required for the novel and heightening it, making it extreme. Harry Potter is the most famous young wizard. Eeyore is the most depressed donkey ever. Quintessential is about making a character superlative in some way. But all great quintessential characters are also essential.

An essential character is one whose chief characteristic drives the plot, and whose additional characteristics also contribute to the action. This is a layering process. It doesn't happen in one pass. You develop your plot. You build your protagonist and antagonist and figure out what makes them tick. You go back to your plot and figure out how your character's quirks, fears, and goals make them act, react, and oppose each other. How they endear one character to another. Then think about how adding different character traits could heighten the tension or introduce more complications.

Here are some things to ask yourself as you work through the items from the worksheet:
  • What is the character's role in the story? What does she need to do? How does this conflict with her known goals and unconscious desires?
  • What characteristics and special abilities does she have to have to let her to play her role?
  • What characteristics would make filling that role almost impossible?
  • What is her family and childhood baggage? Who is whispering in her head?
  • Is she basically a dark character? How can you make her vulnerable and sympathetic?
  • Is she a happy character at heart? What dark secrets is she hiding? 
  • What were her most spectacular failures, and how can those failure help her succeed or fail to succeed at a crucial moment in the story?
  • What was her most brilliant triumph, and how can it set her up for failure?
  • What mementos and keepsakes does she treasure? How can you make her lose them? How will she react?
  • What are her phobias and favorite places? How can you use them against her?
  • What are her hobbies? How can you make them essential to the plot? What do they teach the character that she couldn't have learned in any other way?
  • What are her favorite foods? How does sharing those with other characters mark progress in the relationship  between them?
  • How does she respond to her environment and face challenges or adversity?
  • What are her personality quirks? Does she lie compulsively? Does she never pass up a dare?
  • What are her pet peeves? Does she hate it when people misuse a particular word? Do people who talk a lot drive her nuts?
  • What are her goals, dreams, and greatest fears? What makes her work? What holds her back?
  • How does she see herself? How do others see her? Does she know there is a disconnect?
  • How does she react to the opposite sex?
  • What are her opposing traits? Does she love to read but hate to be alone? Is she family-oriented but can't stand kids?
Answering these questions may seem like a lot of work, but time getting to know your characters is never wasted. The more time you spend building your characters before you write, the clearer, more consistent, and more essential your characters will be to your story.

Keeping track of everything on a worksheet or in a character bible and consulting that worksheet as you write can cut down on rewrites at the same time it will help you make your characters memorable and timeless. It also serves as a great resource while you're editing.

Happy character building,


Additional information and resources:
Character Worksheet Part 1: Is Your Character Novel-Worthy?
Character Worksheet Part 2 Shrinking Your Characters to Enlarge Them
Download the Character Worksheet
Plot Complications Worksheet
100 Character Quirks You Can Steal from Me
Random Character Quirk Generator
The Phobia List
Quirks and Kinks
Quirky Characters -- A Book List
Breathe Life into Your Characters
Character Driven or Action Driven?
When Characters Show Their Weakness
Secrets of Great Characters from 6 SF Authors
How the Four Elements of Fiction Are Related
Characters Inside
Writing Fiction: Developing Characters
Epiphany in Developing Character and Plot
All Characters Are 3 Dimensional, Right?
5 Secrets about Your Character's Secrets
Creating Memorable Characters
20 Questions to Ask Floundering Characters
Developing Character Traits
9 Traits of Sympathetic Characters
Develop Increased Sympathy for Your Characters
15 Days to Stronger Characters
Next:  Character Worksheet Part Four: Are Your Characters Walking & Talking (Body Language, Manerisms, and Habits of Speech.)


  1. Excellent post. Thanks so very much. I posted on Inkwell.ning.com in the Mechanics of Manuscripts group and linked to the post. Keep up the terrific work.

  2. Buffy, thank you so much! That's very generous of you.

  3. Thank you! You've given me just what I need to take another look at my character--and maybe get to know her even a little bit better :-)

  4. Great post. It's so detailed. And it's definitely something I struggle with. Thanks.

  5. Wow.

    Bookmarked? Check.
    Printed? Check.
    Filed? check.

    Great, great stuff!! :-)

  6. Thanks, so much Kenda, Natalie, and Shannon!

  7. I don't have to go to school anymore...just sit in front of the laptop and read your HUGELY EDUCATIONAL posts!


    BRILLIANT as usual!

  8. Great post. I'm going to print the worsksheets out and get some extra character delving done. :)

  9. Really awesome tips - I've got some ideas on how to strengthen my MC now - thanks! :)

  10. Wow, fantastic post! Clear, practical -- thank you.

    Off to read more of your posts.... :)

  11. Just read your comment over at Tahereh's latest post - flippin' bril summary - laughed at Tehereh's post and then almost choked to death on your summary-ha ha ha!

    Nice one LADIES - left a comment on your comment over there and someone else did, too!

    You are FAMOUS!

  12. Amazing post as always. You are a cyber Rolodex. Love it!! Thank you.

  13. Thanks, ladies! Love the encouragement. Makes me want to keep posting. :-) Ann Marie, I take no responsibility whatsoever for your breathing mishap. Tahereh clearly had your laughbox primed. Isn't that girl AMAZING? Thanks very much though! :-D

  14. I've totally enjoyed your posts on characters. I would love to run them in my free newsletter. If interested, please contact me. You really get to the point on what makes a great character. I know a lot of first-time writers have a hard time with making their characters 3-D. Okay, even some of us old timers, too.

    The Writing Mama
    email me at storiesforchildren@vsgrenier.com

  15. How long does it usually take you to fill out all your character worksheets?

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