Tag Archives: character worksheets

Give Your Villains a Break — And Rough Up Your Heroes

One of the hardest feats to pull off when writing characters is creating complete, realistic characters. Usually, you’ll find this most difficult when you’re either writing a character whom you despise—or when you’re writing a character based in part on yourself.

When you’re writing a character whom you despise, you run a quite high risk of making the character one-dimensional. For example, I wrote a short story featuring a brutal doctor, Dr. Arnold Hollingsead II. Hollingsead, in my mind, was a judgmental bigot who did not care about his patients. I gave him no quarter and painted him as the suave sadist I imagined him to be — resulting in a thoroughly one-dimensional character about whom readers felt absolutely nothing. Not hate, not pity, not even dislike.

Why was this? After all, hadn’t I shown him to be despicable? Well, yes, but I hadn’t shown him to be a real person. In real life, few, if any people, are wholly good or bad. Most of us are a mix of good and bad traits. Even saints, for example, often led colorful lives before reforming — think of St. Augustine, who fathered an illegitimate child, or St. Mary of Egypt, who was quite the seductress. And even for the person who goes on to become as good as gold, the past can still trouble him or her.

St Augustine -- Not always such a saint.Characters whom you want to show as despicable should also comprise good and bad traits. In order for your readers to hate your villain as much as you do, you must make the bad guy sympathetic. For example, I gave my villain, Dr. Hollingsead, no characteristics with which readers could empathize. And the key is that a reader must see a bit of himself in that vile character. Because no one believes that he or she is evil, if you can show your reader a slice of himself, he or she will have that emotional reaction you seek to evoke.

The other difficulty writers run into in creating characters is a failure to make a main character truly come alive. This almost always occurs because that main character is a part of the writer. We know ourselves too well; it becomes impossible to separate yourself from your character, and the result, again, is a one-dimensional representation. Or, for example, because you love your character so, you give him or her no bad traits at all.

How do you get around this? You can use character worksheets, as I mentioned in my previous post, to truly give that character a separate life from yourself. When you use this method, try to think of traits that you don’t have — maybe you’re obsessively neat, so make your character a bit of a slob. Maybe you didn’t give him any vices — so now his vice is compulsive gambling.

I know, I know, you don’t want to have to do this. You love your main character, and you want others to love him, too, because he is really you. But again, if you don’t give him dimensions, you risk creating a flat character with whom no one can identify, not least because you haven’t drawn him out.

So go ahead, give even your villains a break, and rough up your heroes. You might be surprised by the results.

Character Worksheets: Map Your Way to Complete Characters

Creating well-rounded characters is one of the most fun aspects of story planning. Now, if you’re protesting this statement, I’m going to share with you an easy way to create your characters.

The simplest and easiest way to create good characters is to use character worksheets. On these worksheets, you list a number of questions you’ll need answers to in order to round out your character. Sure, you’ll want to know his or her name, location, age, and appearance, but that doesn’t take you very far.

For example, what is your character’s main vice? What about her main virtue? Political views? Major hangups? Romantic history?

What I like about character sheets is that they help me write a more fully realized story. If I know my character’s nervous tics, for example, then I know what she’s doing with her hands when she’s anxious. If I know her major vice — say, she forgets to watch the speed limit — then I might know she’s had a lot of encounters with cops and may have a bad opinion of them. If I know her movie and book tastes — for example, documentaries and nonfiction — then I might know she’s more of a cerebral type.

Two of my most favorite questions to answer are sun sign and phobias. Now, whether or not you believe in astrology, knowing your character’s sun sign can also help you round out a character. For example, for a character I created name Sadie, I set her birth date on December 10, 1985, making her a Sagittarius. A little Internet research provides some information about Sagittarians: overly expressive, with frequent burnouts, and who like to make a difference in the world. These traits helped me put Sadie together into the politically active, turbulent character she turned out to be.

For another character I created, Levi, I chose apeirophobia as his phobia. Apeirophobia is fear of infinity or living forever. This helped me figure out why Levi, who is naturally spiritual, chose the religion that he did — one with no conscious afterlife existence. This also helped me come up with a backstory for him, as well as an impetus to choose stargazing as his hobby.

For me, putting these character sheets together is a bit like playing God — and quite a lot of fun, although I otherwise would not make a very effective God. The benefit of them is that as you’re writing the story, you have a wealth of material about this character, whom you now know quite well, to draw from in any situation.

And in case you were wondering, Phobia List has a near-complete list of phobias, and Astrology Online has in-depth explanations of the characteristics of each sun sign.