Tuesday, May 11, 2010

12 Shrinking Your Characters to Enlarge Them: Character Worksheet Part 2

Last week, I put up the character worksheet I use for character development, and went over some of the questions I use to decide whether my characters are novel-worthy. A lot of you were kind enough to comment about the post, so today, I'll tackle appearance and character psychology.

Appearance: Seeing Your Character Outside In
There's a whole section on the worksheet about appearance, including a place for photos to help get a feel for how the character appears to others. Different writers I know use celebrity photos, or just random shots. I like to enter the most identifying feature or phrase about the character's appearance into Google image search or iStockPhoto and see what comes up. The results usually teach me a lot more about who my character isn't than who she is, but that's all good, too. To help narrow down her clothing and personal style, I love using the style browser at ShopStyle.

Internals: Knowing Your Character Inside Out
The next step is to look beneath the skin of the character and check off some of the basic questions on the worksheet about the character's health and personality. After that, I'm ready to hit what I think is probably the most helpful part of the worksheet, the Myers-Briggs personality type. On the worksheet, this goldmine of information masquerades as a handful of lines and checkboxes.

The 16 Myers-Briggs personality types provide a rich source of characterization data for writers. Not only can they help extend a few personality traits into a whole, rounded character by providing related characteristics, but they also contain built-in weaknesses and failings. I like to match and extend these by using astrological signs, and play with the combination of characteristics until they match the role or achetype that character plays in the novel.

But a true character has to go beyond the archetype. Knowing who the character is  allows me, the writer, to play psychologist and build her backstory. That's where the real fun begins, digging into a character's psychology and uncovering the secrets she is trying to hide, the things she won't admit to  herself, and the highs and lows of her childhood. If the character is shy, how did her parents react to her shyness? Did they push her to be more outgoing? Did they accidentally reward her for her reluctance to put herself out? If she's selfish or lazy, how did she get that way? What problems does it cause in her life? How does that pit her against the other characters in my novel? By the time I'm done shrinking and analyzing my character, I know her very well. And whether he or she is the protag or the antag, chances are I like her. Like the antag? What? YES!

Making Rounded Characters Larger than Life
Even the antagonist has to have redeeming features. She has to be every bit as compelling as the protagonist, every bit as smart, every bit as powerful, every bit as engaging. She has to have weaknesses the protagonist can use against her, the same way the protagonist has weaknesses the antagonist will try to exploit. And because this is fiction, the strengths and weaknesses of both the protag and the antag need to be epic. Quintessential. Whatever chief strength I have identified for each of them, the one that is the most interesting and well-substantiated psychologically, that's the characteristic I am going to exploit and build-on until I can't think of the character without thinking of that one particular characteristic.

Using Character Strengths to Drive the Novel
To make things even more interesting, I like to make the character's weakness equally compelling. If my protag is loyal, she is going to be loyal to a fault, to the point where she acts irrationally in defense of the subject of her loyalty. If she is courageous, she is going to be so courageous, she can't retreat even when she should. If the antag is going to be vengeful, she is going to be so intent on her revenge that she'll risk her own safety to twist the knife just a little more.

Is this starting to sound like plot? Why, yes it is. So I just pile on the complications and I'm off and running.

What about you? How do you like to work your characters? Inside out or outside in? Do you start with plot or character?

Happy complicating,


Read Part 3 of the series here:


Helpful links:
Character Worksheet
Jessica Subject's Character Bible
Great Characters: Their Best Kept Secret
Developing Memorable Characters: 45 Questions to Create Backstories
Developing a Protagonist
IstockPhoto Image Search
ShopStyle Clothing Style Browser
Meyers/Briggs Personality Types
9 Enneagram Overriding Personality Types (Thanks, Ara Burklund!)
Personality Types Overview
Sun/Astrological Signs
Character Roles & Archetypes
A Primer on Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious
Using Psychology to Create Characters
Characterization & Conflict: Using Personality Tests to Improve Your Writing
Jessica Subject's Top Ten Sites for Character Development

Helpful Books:
45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters
Writer's Guide to Character Traits
The Complete Writer's Guide to Heroes and Heroines


  1. Wow! Using the Myers-Briggs is a great idea, Martina! Another great resource is the Enneagram by Helen Palmer. It helps with overriding character trait-types.

  2. Great idea, Ara! I'll put that link in right now. There are even videos :-D

  3. Thanks, Martina, for the great post. I had some luck using the Snowflake method. That reminds me, I need to look at my notes again. Your method looks very helpful too!

  4. Thanks for your comment on my blog. I look forward your post tomorrow (I always do).

  5. Thanks for all the info Martina! It's 1.30 am here so I'm not going to check things out in detail now-I'll go back to it in the morning.

    Just sent you an email - hope you can understand my ramblings...I've started to snore..!


  6. Thanks for stopping by my blog. And who can resist the wise words of Miley Cyrus?

  7. Great post. Really enjoyed it. I tend to to both depending on if the character comes to mind first or the storyline.

  8. Great Links at the bottom! Thanks so much!

  9. I can't do the visual matching on the computer. My characters are physically unique in my head - I can't match them to real people :)

  10. Great post. I love how you have your character's strengths and weaknesses play against each other. Definitely there's a lot to think about in getting to know your characters.

  11. Wow, these are really great helpful posts. Thank you for all the tips!

  12. I've used Google Search before to find photos I can use in scrapbooks that I create about my characters. The ShopStyle link is a nifty extra idea. Thanks!


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