I love complex characters. Ones that have parts of them that are at war; parts that make them flawed (genuinely flawed, not "I'm too organised" kinds of flaws); parts that shift, change and grow. So finding an organised way to chart that depth of character was a nightmare. The templates I found were either tediously detailed (What is their favorite season? What is their favorite piece of clothing - cue eye roll) or only focused on the external. Knowing what a character looks like IS important, but for me the internal nuts and bolts are much more important - much more vital.
Below is a sample image of what I created. At the end of the post is an empty (docx file) that you can download. Free!!
Got to love free stuff.
In this post I will explain the sections, the order that I fill them in and why I think it is important to include this information.
Overarching - Beginning, Middle and End
Why the four sections?
For me characters should always be changing - getting better or worse. So to make sure I charted this change I tried to break up the story into manageable chunks. Making the character's growth feel authentic - just be careful to make the transitions gradual, starting internally before they affect the external expressions.
I feel that this is the driving part of your backstory - the part has shaped the character up to this point. Most of our characters have pretty crappy backstories and there is usually one or two events that we give them that really drive their actions or personality (e.g. dead parents, being cursed, etc.). Fleshing out how your backstory impacts on your character will give you the space to explore that character's personality in depth at the beginning of the novel.
1. Events - Positive and Negative Traits
The very first series of boxes I fill in are the "Important Events" boxes. Now these may not be events that are important to your plot, and they definitely should not be the same for every character (Don't you dare Ctr+C, Ctr+V this section!). Each character will have events that are very important to them and shape who they are becoming (even if it's not mentioned in the novel).
I decided to link both positive and negative traits to an event because I believe that each event shapes us in that way. It also allows us to create complexities within the character. Things that they don't like about themselves, things that scratch when they brush up against one another. The example below is a very simplistic overview of what a changes a character might experience due to events in their lives.
Again, this is a very simple example, you can have as many or as few traits as you like. I like to mimic the number of traits to the number of events so each event has its own negative and positive trait.
2. Beliefs - Goals and Fears
Once you have the events and traits down, it will help inform your next step - identifying what the character believes, as well as what they want more than anything else at that time, and the thing they fear most.
Again - repeating myself so much - I like to link the number of beliefs/goals/fears to the number of events for each section (e.g. beginning = 3 events = three beliefs = three goals = three fears) this will not always work out, sometimes a fear or goal can encompass more than one event - if so yay! Less work is always good.
Beliefs are very integral to who a person is and what drives them. I heavily link my beliefs for beginning, middle and end to the events, this way the fears and goals relate directly to what is happening.
In the example below, the character is not making very smart choices or interpreting the situation in a great way. Luckily, I will never use this example. But it does serve its purpose well. It highlights how our beliefs change our fears and goals.
Goals and Fears
Fears and goals do not have to be complimentary. Sometimes our fear can drive us to do things that are opposite to our goals. I imagine in the story above that they fear their partner cheating so much that they drive the partner insane, straining the relationship with their insecurity. As well as their goal to prove their worth, it might come across as desperation because they are pushing too hard - worried that no one will love them.
This again adds complexity to your character and their actions/reactions.
3. Values and Moral Ambiguity
Moral ambiguity gives your character some dark edges. Ambiguity makes them a less reliable narrator, it skews their world view. It makes them more human, flawed. Moral ambiguity often goes hand in hand with a value. Much like fears and goals, often our moral ambiguity directly impacts our ability to attain the one thing we want.
This makes their plight more uncertain, as they are acting in competition or opposition to it.
A big thank you to Dawn Jonckowski for inspiring this post.
I hope you guys enjoyed this post and find the template useful.
Until next time: craft complex characters, give them more shade of gray than a certain book we all know.