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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