Create a Character Chart with these 5 Steps!
Wait, what is a character chart, and why do I need it?
Picture this: you’ve had an idea for a great story, it’s not the first time you’ve thought of it, and you know it has legs. You start to write. It’s going well.
There’s another character coming into the story now so you keep going.
Finally, you stop to review your work and you’ve realised that your characters have a 2-dimensional feel to them and something isn’t right.
So, how do you fix it? Do you keep writing by the seat of your pants or do you take a moment to reflect on your writing and plan things out?
Whichever side of the keyboard you sit, you’ll reach a point in your story where you will need to flesh things out, and this is where your character chart comes in.
Fictional characters do not fall into existence from the sky. Characters have physical traits they were born with; they will have a family, they will have a driving force, and they will have flaws.
Whilst you will have an idea of your characters from the onset, it is good practice to flesh them out in a character chart.
This post will talk you through some tips and tricks for mapping out each of the characters in your story so that you have a reference point for who they are, what they want, and how they grow.
I cover character development further in The Reading Room Podcast to identify the How-To for you as the emerging writer. Each episode looks at how language forms an image of the characters in the reader's mind and how action propels a story forward. Reading as a writer allows you to look deeper into the prose and deconstruct it to reveal the "how" underneath.
Uncover more tips and exercises to guide you on your narrative journey by listening to the episodes dedicated to the subject at the links below or in your favourite podcast app.
So, let's get to work with your characters!
Tip #1 - Identify your key characters
It’s good practice to write out defining details for your players: your protagonist, antagonist, comedic sidekick, love-interest, or guide. The more details you identify, the clearer the character will come to life on the page. You may not know all the details straight away, but you’ll find that as you write these out a new or surprise trait might present itself.
I worked with a client who felt she knew her protagonist like the back of her hand; a detective with a keen eye for detail and blue eyes - a physical trait crucial to the theme. However, as she progressed with the character chart, she realised that the detective also had a birthmark in the shape of a crescent moon that an ex-partner would often mention to him. This refined detail provided insight into the character's backstory and inner conflict.
Tip #2 - Have a 'Q&A' session with your characters
You’ll note in the chart that there are a host of questions to kick-start each narrative. In addition to these, the questions and points for consideration listed below can help you dig deeper into your character and unveil further complexities.
You’ll find more traits will present themselves the more questions you address.
What is their full name? (Do they have any nicknames?)
What is their D.O.B/age?
What is their job?
Who are their parents/siblings/friends/pets? How strong/weak is their relationship?
What is their sexual orientation?
How are they built? (Tall, short, lean, muscular)
What colour is their hair/eyes/skin tone? (Consider hairstyle, eye shape, birthmarks, tattoos, etc.)
How do they like to dress? (Consider, too, the condition of each item of clothing: is it in pristine condition, in need of repair or somewhere in between?)
What is their race/ ethnicity?
What is a phrase they say a lot/are known for? (For instance, ‘Crikey’, ‘oh bother’ or expletive bomb drops!)
What good/bad habits do they have? (Consider fidgeting, nail-biting, hair ruffling etc.)
How do they want to be seen by others VS how they are seen by others VS how they see themselves? (For example, are they generous, judgemental, quick to make decisions or slow, etc.?)
What is their strongest or weakest personality trait?
What (or who) inspires/drives /haunts /weakens them?
What are their motivations and ambitions?
I’ve created a PDF chart to prompt the type of questions students should consider. Remember the more questions asked, the deeper the character dimensions you create. Sign up to access this chart, plus further resources, and tips here.
Tip #3 - Set time aside to review your chart
It’s easy to lose yourself in the moment and momentum when writing your novel and just as easy to forget to revisit your narrative admin. Your characters will evolve as your story does. For example, they might develop new habits or unearth traumas, so it's worth spending time to mark these nuances down in your chart file. 10 minutes a week is a practical slot to review and update your character information.
Tip #4 - Review, Revise, Repeat
Once you have created your character charts and respective notes for them, it’s important to keep updating your file. Your character’s arc (the transformation or inner journey of a character over the course of a story) will likely see some revision as the narrative progresses, especially in the first (and, sometimes, second) drafts
Tip #5 - Give it time, give it effort, and give it discipline
You might think that a character chart is a lot of work. Newsflash: writing a novel, whether short or long, simple or complex requires time, effort, and practice to develop a discipline. You owe it to your story, yourself, and your future readers to put in the work. Transfer the characters in your mind onto the page - those characters they will love, hate, empathise with, and root for.
The best way to ensure you write regularly is to carve out time in a calendar. You might have a regular window in the day where you have 10 minutes or 30 minutes to yourself and use that time effectively each day and get to it.
“When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away - even if it's only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.” ― Kurt Vonnegut
Need some help with your story?
Sometimes we all need help to get there, and that’s ok. I’ve listed a few links below, should you want to talk about your story in a safe, trusted space without judgement:
- We can work on specific areas you need to get your story moving with 1:1 support. Have a look at the options in Calendly, here.
- Book your place on a mini creative writing course here.
I create my courses with Thinkific, so you'll be asked to set up an account with Thinkific when you make your purchase but don't worry, you only have to do this once, and then you'll be ready to go!
- Listen to the episodes dedicated to Character Development in The Reading Room Podcast here. You can also take part in the writing exercises to enhance your writing skills for writing tips and insights.
- Join our Online Community over at Ko-Fi for upcoming, behind the scenes content, and exclusive access to writing retreat schedules, new courses, and more!
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