5 Tips: Character Template

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Droemar's avatar
EDIT: If you like this journal entry, check out The Sarcastic Guide to Writing ebook www.amazon.com/The-Sarcastic-G… for exclusive content on world-building, character, and dialogue!

I make no disclaimer whatsoever that this is the end-all, be-all of a character template.  This is what works for me, and I’m well aware that my writing process is mine and mine alone.  But I’ll post the template and my reasoning on it in the hopes that folks can discern something helpful from it.  One of the worst things to do to yourself is tell yourself there’s a “right way” and trap yourself in that box.  Don’t ever resist what feel unnatural in the writing process.  Just learn to direct its course, like a river.  Also, please keep in mind that I do a lot of prewriting, and this template gets filled out for every major character in the story.  My major casts almost always tend to consist of about five to seven players, and each one gets a template.  Yeah.
I also feel the need to point out that I come from a very heavy roleplaying background, so a lot of my templates take after RPG character sheets.

Home Country:
Build:(Gas-station robbery description)
Archetype: (Google ‘em, or make up a name for the role they play in the story.)           
Weapon of Choice: (Assuming they have one.)

Likes:(Likes can say a lot about a character, especially if he has weird ones, like “putting kittens in blenders”.)
Dislikes:  (Knowing what your character dislikes is prime fodder to make him confront it.  It puts him out of his comfort zone, and we get to see if he’ll learn to tolerate it, becomes a better person, have a meltdown, or whatever.  Conflict will inevitably ensue if another character’s dislike is one someone else’s like list.  A good rule of thumb is to start out with dislikes, then to move the character towards confronting their Greatest Fears and Greatest Regrets.)
Goals: (Yeah.  You need this.  You just do.)
Magic: (If your character has particular “rules” of magic, this is where to put the specifics.)
Subplot: (The character’s arc of change; different from the plot.  Or any other subplot, like “also discovers treasure while saving the world”.)
Hobbies/Fun Time: (This is the character’s idea of a fun time, what they would choose to do if they had the freedom and resources to do so.  This can kind of be a stepping stone to discovering Goals and Motivation.)
Flaw: (The big negative aspect of the character.  Short-temper, selfish, arrogant, affronted by bathing, whatever.  Usually the big thing the character overcomes throughout the story, but not always.  Please keep in mind that this should be something pretty major, not a food allergy.  A flaw is what makes a character human and interesting.  If your flaw sucks, odds are your story and character will, too. I 've also noticed that the more words someone needs to describe his character's flaw, the more angsty and Mary-Sueish they're bound to be.)
Motivation: (The character’s own justification and reasoning for pursuing his goals.)
Out of Ordinary: (The thing that makes a character stand out in a memorable way; or what your reader is most likely to remember them for.  Not quite the opposite of Flaw, but just as important.  Examples would be Harry Potter being The Boy Who Lived, Frodo’s “the everyman can accomplish anything” aspect, Samwise’s loyalty, Superman’s Man of Steel status, etc.  This is probably the surest sign of a Mary Sue, since they have no memorable traits beyond "They're perfect".  This also has something to do with the story; you can't have a story about shark hunting when someone's Out of Ordinary is dance ability, unless you're really stretching. )
Advantage: (This is a more pragmatic and physical equivalent of Out of Ordinary; your character is rich, or was born a lord, or is exceptional at gymnastics, is quick-witted or has an IQ of 300. Examples would be Batman’s training and fortune, Nightcrawler’s ability to teleport, Wolverine’s healing factor, etc.  Please keep in mind that this is a singular term, Mary Sue writers.)
Scared Most By: (I’m amazed at the number of people who can’t tell me the thing their character is most afraid of.  This and this alone can be your entire story.  Sitting down and really asking
yourself what would render your character incapable of speech and paralyzed, out of sheer terror, opens up a lot of doorways for their development.  Once you know what your character fears, get to work finding a way for them to be confronted by it.)
Greatest Accomplishment: (This is what the character themselves view as their greatest accomplishment, that which they are most proud of.  If a multi-billionare CEO regards the time he saved a small boy from drowning as his greatest accomplishment, it says a lot about his character.  Conversely, if he’s most proud of the day he bought out his biggest competitor and watched all the employees fired, that says a lot, too. )
Greatest regret: (Same deal: what the character regards as their greatest failing.  Batman might be a kickass superhero, but I can tell you his greatest regret was not doing anything when Ma and Pa died.  Accomplishments and Regrets are great for character revelation moments, especially when supporting cast have their labels and judgements completely shaken.  “Your mom died, you couldn’t save her, and that’s why you’re such a jerk?  Wow ...”)
Skills: (Sometimes I lose track of things my cast can and can’t do.  I list what they are competent at here, to avoid scenes where the characters perform actions outside their capacity, like having a rich man with no survival skills being the one to start a campfire.  Just not gonna happen.)
History: (A brief summary of the character’s background before the story begins.  If your character’s background is ten times more exciting than the story, you might want to rethink a few things.)
© 2010 - 2021 Droemar
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Rebel-Mel's avatar
I know this entry is old, but I just wanted to say how enormously helpful this is. This is the first character template I've found that actually makes me think beyond superficial things like the type of tattoos they have or their favorite color, and it's a great help in developing characters. Just now I was referring to it again to make notes for my characters and found I had some difficulty still in answering some of the questions--I even paused when it came to my main character's subplot/arc (yikes!). Things like "greatest fear" and "greatest accomplishment" also manage to trip me up every time, but once I can answer them I find I always have much stronger characters as a result. So thanks a ton for this!
Droemar's avatar
I remember doing roleplay profiles, and coming across a lsit of character questions that were "Greatest Fear" and "Greatest Accomplishment". That was a keyttone in my own writer's journey, realizing how much characters are motivated by fear and what they values about themselves (as opposed to what other characters value about them.) So I'm glad to hear it's just as helpful and eye-opening for other folks.
When writing the flaws of the antagonist of my story, I found that he only has social or mental flaws, not physical ones (he's rejected by society, he's uncivilized and deranged), does that makes him a Mary Sue?
Droemar's avatar
No. The definition of a Mary Sue is a character that gets a disproportionate amount of attention from the other characters and the rules of the world. If everyone does nothing but prioritize around the hero, and all the rules of the plot and world-building make exceptions for the hero, they're probably a Mary Sue.
What does "Out of Ordinary" exactly means? I'm having the idea that it is a trait that makes the character different than the others, like "the one-eyed man" or "the blue-fire girl", but I'm not sure if you are saying a different thing.
Droemar's avatar
The most memorable trait of the character.
KaxantheDragon's avatar
I'm using this template, but I'm a little confused as to what is so different between "out of the ordinary" "advantage" and "skills". Can you please elaborate with me? XD
Droemar's avatar
Out of the Ordinary is a trait that makes the character stand out and be remembered after the book is over. "The fat guy", "the smart guy", etc. If you were describing your character to another person and had to encompass them in a sentence, that sentence is probably their Out of the Ordinary trait.
An Advantage is something literal or physical that the character possesses. Wealth, training, education: anything in which they would have the immediate upper hand over other characters in the same situation.
Skills are simply abilities characters posses, anything from fighting to diplomacy to bargaining to thrift or math or whatever. Not everyone has every type of skill, and it's usually a good idea to draw the line for a character so they're not both a trigonometry physicist AND a playwright genius race-car driver.
KaxantheDragon's avatar
So it took so long for me to reply, but I wanted to keep this comment around so I could burn it into my memory. :XD:

VERY HELPFUL. Thanks so much, Droemar.
androidgirl's avatar
Can I use your templates for my database project? Assuming I manage to code everything right, the result should be that anyone can fill out the template, revisit it, compare details, check for world/character inconsistencies, etc.
Droemar's avatar
Sure, that's fine.
bazjra's avatar
I've done character bios hundreds of times and only once completed one where I had to include the characters fears, weaknesses, and goals. That character is by far my favorite character and while getting those was so difficult, I think it really did help solidify him more.

I've never been a fan of likes/dislikes -- it always seemed a bit shallow and inconsequential to me ('I like ponies and lollipops and rainbows and emo bands'), but you putting it in the perspective of actual personality really freshens it.

As always, your articles are top-notch and helpful.
Droemar's avatar
It can take years for characters to properly reveal themselves. I actually discovered that characters with fears, weaknesses, and goals made them more fun to roleplay ... so that was an incredibly lame way to discover it. But it worked!
bazjra's avatar
Oh, for 'Archetype' -- a link to TV Tropes would be suitable here. ;)
MadKatter's avatar
This has suddenly become a lifesaver, which is surprising since before now I figured this wasn't for me. I tend to just let my characters run amok in stories and flesh themselves out, well, themselves.

But just now I was thinking "It would be nice if I had a list somewhere of what this character was good at" and I remembered seeing that slot in this template. So now I'm using this to keep track of what has and hasn't been established in canon for my characters.

So thanks! You saved me the trouble of making up my own template for making sure I remember this character's favourite brand of cigarettes or that that character is good at climbing buildings.

Also, I put you and your Five Tips journals on a resources list over on #Think-You-Can-Write, I hope that's okay. If you don't want to be on that list I can take you off, no problem.
Droemar's avatar
No, that's no problem. All the more exposure! Thanks for putting me on there.
Glad it was helpful for you.
aflartist's avatar
this is really helpful!
JADgirl666's avatar
Awesome, I can't waut to use this! Its great that there is more to this template than just physical appearance. The 'fears' one is sure to make my characters much deeper!
Droemar's avatar
I struggled a lot with character arcs when I was younger. When I figured out what everyone feared, my character arcs got a lot stronger and easier.
melladh's avatar
The templates are quite fascinating, thanks for sharing. I could never fill one of these out before I start writing (honestly I don't know my characters when I begin..) but I'd say it'd be a good measurement of how much the characters derailed through the story, by filling it out afterwards, and seeing if I hit any conflicts. :D

"Greatest accomplishment: none". Sheesh, if that isn't the mark of an emo story I don't know what is. :) But I knew that was going to happen...

And I hear ya about the setting down rules for magic. I'm always annoyed when someone's recommended me a "good fantasy book" and most of it seems to focus on "woot mage can blast the universe to pieces and does so repeatedly!". Some people seem to set down rules for magic in their books just to show how awesome every single character they bother writing about is, because they can break all those rules, all the time, without repercussions.
Droemar's avatar
Hmmm ... I should probably do a 5 Tips on conflict. Thanks for the idea!
Lit-Twitter's avatar
Chirp, it's been twittered. :)
androidgirl's avatar
Also, in terms of the "Out of the Ordinary" aspect, you say "Perfect" is an indicator of Mary Sue. Does "maintains perfect grades and is an overall model student due to pressure from parents" count?
Droemar's avatar
No. "Perfect" would be something like "Maintains perfect grades, is stunningly attractive but humble, and gets along with her parents better than a 1950's sitcom." Although if the maintaining perfect grades thing is the character's Out of Ordinary, you probably need to work harder on making the character stand out. If I'm gonna remember a character, I'm fairly certain it would be for something more than that.
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