Charting Main Characters

A Characterization Resource for Fiction Writers

A few early readers of The Evangelist in Hell told me, “The main character reminds me of you.” These were friends and family members who saw my life on a regular basis and felt smugly convinced that they’d cracked the code, torn back the veil, discovered my secret inspiration for creating lifelike protagonists in the novel. I was always tempted to say, “Well, aren’t you clever? Now guess which character reminds me of you.”

The Stuff (Or People) Ideas are Made Of

The classic advice is “strong fiction is character driven,” but where do these characters come from? No matter how or when the muse whispers, authors will invariably draw on some kind of personal experience to create a realistic character. Most often it’s an amalgamation of faces and events, some firsthand, others borrowed. Knowing what it’s like to hope, love, fail, succeed, embrace acceptance, or face rejection allows writers to create characters in those same situations. Journaling, reading, and even sharing life stories help develop a sense of universal themes and worldview. Writers can ask, what happens to people, and how do they respond? What do they want?

Character Charts

Now to the practical advice—how to take these existential questions and mold them into a character with an actual body and voice. Many writers have similar advice for character charts, some with more categories than others. The idea is to organize physical characteristics, personality traits, and goals, so anything achieving that will work just fine. Here’s what I use:

Age

Pretty self-explanatory here, but I also include the character’s birthday. If the birthday’s coming up or just passed, it might factor into the narrative.

Hometown

Here I describe the setting as much as possible. What drives the economy or culture? What do people do for work or for fun? What’s the education like? What inspires the citizens, and what constrains them? How did growing up here affect this character’s overall worldview?

Physical Description

In addition to height, hair color, eye color, scars, body type, etc., this is a place to chart out the character’s typical wardrobe. Knowing the character’s clothing helps create continuity across different scenes and set pieces in the story.

Personality

It’s important to include both how others would describe the character and how the character would describe herself. Does the character have any quirks or catchphrases? Common archetypes can help describe a character’s general mood or behavior. This is a baseline, and various stressors and events in the story might bring changes here.

Family Background

All the traditions, all the drama, all the loyalties and betrayals. What secrets might come to light in the story? What relationships might feel strain because of the character’s actions or inactions? Family trees are especially useful for historical fiction and epic fantasy so ancestry lines don’t get confused.

Motivation

While motivation can mean what gets the character out of bed in the morning, it’s really about a belief system. It’s the driving force behind every choice. For example, what motivates the decision to order a caramel macchiato instead of regular coffee? What informs the decision to answer on the first ring instead of letting it go to voicemail? Fears and desires fill this space.

Goal

The goal is a more simply stated, measurable outcome. He wants to find his father. She wants to be a senator. The character will either do this or not—no middle ground.

Conflict

What makes the goal hard? Why, internally and externally, can’t the character just have what she wants?

Epiphany

The lesson learned—what the character realizes en route to the goal, or how he’s different after succeeding (or failing) to achieve it.

Making the Acquaintance

A robust character chart can save a plodding scene. Many plot problems originate as character problems: An unclear motivation will stall any narrative. With fleshed-out characters, though, a story writes itself. Well…almost.

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College Application Essays Dos and Don’ts

How to Put Your Best Foot Forward in Writing

In my years of teaching and tutoring, I’ve had the joy of helping many students with their personal statements and application essays. While the essay is often only one part of the admissions process, many colleges will say that a strong statement can save an otherwise lackluster application, while a terrible one can sink a student’s hopes no matter how high his GPA. So what does it take to win over the admissions committee? I’ve tried to keep it concise and include examples—that’s a hint for you, too.

DO

  • Answer the question.
    Some of those Common Application prompts sound awfully similar, and some are extremely open-ended. Be careful, though. “Recount a time when you faced a failure” is NOT the same as “describe a problem you’ve solved,” and “share a story about your meaningful background or identity” is NOT license to give an unabridged autobiography. Good essays are focused, clear, and organized. Don’t waste your precious word count restating the prompt; instead, make it obvious from your content.
  • Be honest, humble, and positive.
    Even if you’re a national champion gymnast or a published research scientist at seventeen, a little self-effacement goes a long way. Avoid certainty or finality (“For the rest of my life, I will protect our planet at all costs”) by instead exhibiting a healthy degree of doubt (“I realized that I can’t win every battle”)Most importantly, end on a positive note. A wise person knows she’s not perfect, she can’t fix everything, and that the world won’t always give her what she wants. Finding hope, purpose, and determination in the midst of struggles is a high mark of maturity.
  • Say something about college.
    Once you’ve figured out how to organize the essay and respond positively to the prompt, don’t forget the whole reason you’re doing this. An essay about your passion for building custom PCs should somehow connect to your future plans. It’s decent to describe college in general (“This experience inspired me to pursue an engineering degree”), but much better to name the school where you’re applying (“My love of research draws me to Princeton, where I can…”).
  • Show personal growth.
    A GPA proves you can learn facts, but what about life lessons? No matter what prompt you’re given, incorporate a clear before and after. Err on the side of too corny (“I learned that teamwork means sharing in defeats as much as sharing in victories”) rather than too subtle (“Teams go up and down together”).
  • Ask other people to read it.
    Spellcheck won’t catch every error, so make sure someone proofreads who can differentiate ‘affect’ and ‘effect.’ More importantly, however, give your essay to friends, family members, or a guidance counselor and simply ask, “Does this sound like me?” Grammatical correctness won’t save a bland, cookie-cutter essay.
  • Say what no one else can.
    You’ve probably heard advice to “just be yourself.” The way that happens is through using specific details that no one else in the world can claim. An essay about sports? The world has millions. About winning the state championship in soccer? Still not unique. About a girl who broke her foot in the district final and had to redefine her self-worth and role as team captain while watching her friends chase the first state title in school history without her? Getting closer.

DON’T

  • Try to impress the admissions committee.
    Don’t suck up by telling a school where it ranks in the U.S. News & World Report (if that’s your main reason for applying, I have bigger concerns). Show why the school’s a good fit for you, not why it’s a good school. Don’t spout GRE-level vocabulary or mention your perfect score on the SAT—they’ll see this on your application anyway. With respect, the essay is your chance to be a person, not a robot.
  • Be clichéd, arrogant, or negative.
    While sharing your narrative of personal growth and accomplishment, avoid the rags-to-riches story. Essay readers see far too many “life-changing moments” and “total 180s.” Describing your overnight transformation from self-absorbed jerk to community hero might have the opposite effect. Instead, be authentic and still young on life’s journey. As a corollary to my advice above about staying positive, don’t end the essay without any sense of hope for the world or drive for your future.
  • Write your resume in paragraph form.
    The offending sentence looks like this: “Becoming an Eagle Scout, which is the highest rank a person can achieve in the Boy Scouts of America program based on merit badges, leadership, and a final service project to help members of the community, changed my life.” A personal narrative about how you earned one of those merit badges will be far more successful. In general, don’t repeat information listed elsewhere on the application unless it’s absolutely essential to the story you’re telling.
  • Quote famous people.
    Forget that advice from 9th grade English class about opening with a quote. The truth is that you have a limited word count to display what makes you tick. Don’t fill up that space with lines from Thomas Jefferson or Martin Luther King, Jr.—they already went to college. If you absolutely must, quote your mom or grandma to at least make it personal. Always, always avoid “Webster’s dictionary defines ‘obstacle’ as…” Colleges already have dictionaries; they’re deciding if they should admit you.
  • Sound unnatural.
    It should go without saying to proofread for errors, but some essays manage to tip the scale too far the other way. Using six-syllable synonyms from the thesaurus or allowing your Ph. D. parents to suggest a more complicated syntax could end up working against you. Remember, it’s about relating through your humanity, not showcasing your book knowledge. Don’t bring your fine caviar to the backyard barbecue. It’s a personal essay, not a spelling bee.
  • Ignore the directions.
    This is “just be yourself” in a bad way. If the instructions ask for a 600-word essay, don’t think you’ll win fans by writing 1,000. Opening lines like “instead of a traditional essay, I decided to write a series of limmericks” or “I’ve attached an abstract painting to supplement this writing” should be red flags. Be creative within the constraints, and those constraints are the prompt.

    Questions? Thoughts? Comment below or contact me here. Thanks for reading!