It’s the third week of Preptober, and NaNoWriMo 2018 is just around the corner, everyone! Now that we have our project statistics and plot established, we’re going to move on to perhaps the most exciting bits to write in your writer’s notebook: characters!
It is no secret that what I love the most about writing a book is the characters. After all, they’re the ones keeping me awake at night, pleading to me so I could stay up for a couple more hours and write the continuation of their stories. Most of the time, this means pulling an all-nighter just to get the story written.
And although it means me catching a cold, familiarizing myself with my characters allow me to write my stories faster.
Disclaimer: As my previous post, unfortunately, I wouldn’t be able to disclose the characters of my upcoming project, since:
- They are still very confidential—I haven’t written the manuscript yet!
- They are mostly incomplete, as I tend to add more information as I draft my manuscript.
With that said, here is how I record information about my characters inside my writer’s notebook.
Probably (one of) the most important part of any writer’s notebook.
I know every writer has a different approach to writing. But for me personally, I could probably write a whole book just by having a complete character’s information in my notebook. And an outline. And probably a couple hundred liters of caffeine.
In the first place, my outlining process always begins with the characters. I really have to know my main character inside out. In order for me to think about what scenes to write, I have to get into my character’s head and be them whenever I’m writing. Some call it immersion, some others quote empathy. Whatever it is, I know I can craft a decent story as long as I can relate to the main character in some ways.
And when I can do just that, the plot, settings, and scenes just all come to me naturally.
Now, although I’d argue that you don’t need too many notes for your main characters as long as you really know them, having some kind of “information bank” certainly couldn’t hurt. And that’s the first thing I always keep in mind whenever I’m jotting down notes for my characters’ sheets.
It doesn’t have to be super organized.
Once, I even had a character sheet written completely in a first-person perspective—I pretended I was the main character and I wrote down the script of her narrating her own life story to the readers. Other times, I just went minimalist and write all the information list-style.
There was even this one character that was super difficult for me to understand, and I ended up answering online personality tests in the character’s voice in order to have a comprehensive “character sheet” about said character.
So if you’re here hoping for a clear-cut template for you to use, I’m sorry. But the thing is, I never really use a single template myself. I’d like to think that every character is different. And with that diversity, of course, there would be different approaches to “know” the characters.
Remember, the point of having these “character sheets” is for us as the writers to understand everything about our characters.
It wouldn’t make sense to write a super long introductory essay about a character who’s supposed to be stoic, passive, and reserved. For such a character, a short and concise list might be enough. I remember I had a character named Christian, who was supposed to be super quiet, secretive, and calm.
Guess what did I do with Christian’ character sheet? I intentionally left the “personal questions”, such as hobbies, romantic interest, and weaknesses blank.
On the other hand, Nakamura, as you might recall as my super contemplative main character from my debut novel, 3 (Tiga), had a whole monologue scripted to introduce herself.
By writing the character sheets in the character’s own style and voice, I find it easier for me to tap into their minds as well. I think of it as my “practice” before actually writing the manuscript. This is especially important because I usually write using 1st person PoV, which means a distinct character voice is a necessity.
However, it still goes into your writer’s notebook, so make sure to cover the essentials.
Of course, I’d advise against getting too overboard with personalizing your character sheets, you’d end up forgetting to write about the important things. Generally, I always try to have information about my character’s identity and just leave character’s preference to stylistic choice (i.e. writing it with the character’s voice, etc.)
The most obvious information would be the character’s name, age, perceived gender, and belief. But depending on what kind of story am I writing at the moment, I might add or remove some “essentials”. For example, if I’m writing a fantasy story about the clash of two “magical deities”, I would consider “religion” an essential information. But that might not be the case if I’m writing a romantic comedy where religions have no specific impact on the story.
So how do I cover the essentials?
There are 6 essential pieces of information to always include in your character sheets. Especially for your main characters.
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
While I partly agree with this Shakespearean quote, I also think that by establishing your characters’ names early on, you could focus on more pressing things… like the plot, or the actual personality of the characters. By having a name to call them, even if it means only using placeholder names and replacing them later, you’d have a much easier time referencing your characters.
For example, one of the first things I decided on Unspoken Words, was the name of the main character, which was Kemuning. There is just this magical feeling I get whenever I’ve decided on a name. It’s almost as if the names themselves have this “soul” that could dictate the overall mood of the story.
I mean, Unspoken Words tells a story of Kemuning, who suddenly started getting cryptic dreams about her deceased mother, who seemingly wanted to convey a message to her. I wrote the book by intentionally conveying a feeling of nostalgia, which I somehow get from the name “Kemuning”.
(Imagine how the story would sound like if I changed the main character’s name to a much more modern-sounding “Jennifer”, for example.)
While I used to write
really bad high fantasy novels, a character alignment could either mean Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic. Good, Neutral, or Evil. I recall having this alignment system was especially useful during the times when I had such a huge roster of characters (as most fantasy novels have).
For example, Harry Potter, from the popular series of the same name, falls into the category “Neutral Good”, while Hermione Granger is a “Lawful Good”. Hermione is known to always follow the rules with good intentions, hence the chosen alignment, while Harry, although inherently a good person, sometimes prioritizes the outcome as opposed to following the “right path”.
Good vs Evil
Good characters and creatures protect innocent life. Evil characters and creatures debase or destroy innocent life, whether for fun or profit.
“Good” implies altruism, respect for life, and a concern for the dignity of sentient beings. Good characters make personal sacrifices to help others.
“Evil” implies hurting, oppressing, and killing others. Some evil creatures simply have no compassion for others and kill without qualms if doing so is convenient. Others actively pursue evil, killing for sport or out of duty to some evil deity or master.
Also the other dimension of the spectrum:
Lawful vs Chaotic
Lawful characters tell the truth, keep their word, respect authority, honor tradition, and judge those who fall short of their duties.
Chaotic characters follow their consciences, resent being told what to do, favor new ideas over tradition, and do what they promise if they feel like it.
“Law” implies honor, trustworthiness, obedience to authority, and reliability. On the downside, lawfulness can include close-mindedness, reactionary adherence to tradition, judgmentalness, and a lack of adaptability. Those who consciously promote lawfulness say that only lawful behavior creates a society in which people can depend on each other and make the right decisions in full confidence that others will act as they should.
“Chaos” implies freedom, adaptability, and flexibility. On the downside, chaos can include recklessness, resentment toward legitimate authority, arbitrary actions, and irresponsibility. Those who promote chaotic behavior say that only unfettered personal freedom allows people to express themselves fully and lets society benefit from the potential that its individuals have within them.
To be honest, I rarely write down a detailed character alignment for a non-fantasy project. (Or, you know, for standalone novels with a relatively small range of casts).
But I think, even an action as simple as labeling someone as “Main Character / Protagonist” and the other character as “Antagonist” or “Side Character” could be enough, depending on what kind of story are they in. At the end of the day, having a character alignment chart helps with determining whether character A and character B would get along, how would they respond when given a certain situation, etc.
Everything that signifies the character’s identity falls under this category. I usually try to keep it simple by sticking to the following. (This might be the only part of my character sheets that is actually standardized).
- Character Sex (Biological)
- Character’s Perceived Gender
- Birth (Place /Date)
- Physical Description
Notice how I keep number 6 as broad of a term as possible? To be perfectly honest, I always struggle with a character’s physical description. Unlike many of my friends who seemingly always have this clear idea of what their characters look like, I could never seem to picture them clearly.
A lot of people just try to project their characters into actors and actresses, but that doesn’t really work for me, as I always confuse myself with the actors/actresses’ past roles in movies. And basing the character’s physical description on a real-life person is also a bad idea for me since I would never be able to imagine them in any of my scenarios.
Of course, I think this only happens to a small fraction of writers. But personally, I could never write a decent story if I start fussing about the character’s physical appearance too much.
In my experience, I always fill out the “Physical Description” section much, much later in the writing process. Usually, when I could picture my characters clearly, it means I’m either finished with my draft or at least nearing the end of the manuscript. And the way I store the information is also rather sporadic.
You know, I might just write something like:
Black hair, shoulder-length. Slanted eyes. Mole on upper left arm. Skinny. A bit slouched.
…or something to that effect. But hey! It works for me fine, so I’m sticking with this level of details. If you’re more of a visual person, and always need to picture the pixel details of your characters, feel free to populate the section with even more information. One of my friends even glued a picture of an actor that she’s “casting” as her character.
I’ll tell you what—nobody’s judging.
Remember when I said I write character’s preference in their own voices? This is exactly the section in which I usually do that. Out of all the sections in my character sheets, this easily takes the most space, as I always try to be creative in conveying the characters’ personality through ink on papers.
Essentially, I always try to highlight the following:
- Quirks; what are their unique habits?
But there really is no rule for this section. I’ve even tried and made a “resume” for one of my characters’ personality sheet. It felt so weird writing a resume for a fictional character when I haven’t even fixed my own resume. But it was fun and rewarding at the same time, so I really encourage you guys to be creative with writing your character personality!
As an example, here is a translated excerpt of Nakamura Chidori’s “character personality”, from my debut novel, 3 (Tiga).
I’ve always hated the rain.
I don’t really know why I’ve hated it that much. Perhaps because rain makes me feel sad. Or perhaps because rain makes me think about Hashimoto Chihiro—a friend that I used to have. Or should I say—a memory that I used to hold dear.
Sometimes, I wonder if she thought of me before she jumped off the roof that day. I wonder if she thought of me fondly; if she remembered how we used to share the same apartment, talk about everything on the phone, and even love the same person. I wonder if she remembered that many years ago, before my own foolishness caused us to part ways, we were friends.
I wonder if she hated me.
I wonder if, while standing on the edge of the roof, Hashimoto thought long and hard about all the things that she would be leaving behind. I wonder if she thought about Sakamoto—and how sad her suicide would make him feel. I wonder if she thought about her dreams. I wonder if she thought about me.
I wonder if I caused her death.
…I really could use some water.
The monologue above was exclusively written for my character, Nakamura Chidori. During the writing process, her character came across to me as a contemplative, melancholic person. She has all these questions inside her head, and she is haunted by guilt because she could possibly be the reason why her best friend committed suicide.
And the quirk I was talking about? In the book, Nakamura is known to always drink a lot of water whenever she’s feeling nervous, scared, or anxious. You get my point.
Character Reason for Being
This section dictates why the character is in the story. I’ve read that there are many approaches to this, but essentially what this section sets out to do is to clarify what the characters’ goals are. I mostly write the character’s “reason for being” in one concise sentence.
For example, the main character of Robinson Crusoe would have “SURVIVE” as his main goal in the story. Lara Jean Cover (from the widely popular To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before), would do anything as long as her sister doesn’t know that she loves her ex-boyfriend.
Every character that’s in the story should have a “reason for being” in some way or another. Even a super minor side-character should have their own reason for being. I find that by forcing myself to think of a single sentence to describe the character’s goal/motivation, I could really discern whether this character is worth including in the story or not.
After all, if you have a bunch characters with no “reason for being”, then why write about them in the first place?
After dedicating pages for everything else that I’ve written above, I usually add one more page for each character, where I can just write random notes on. I’d have to admit that this part of the notebook usually is quite disorganized because I just dump all my notes on the page. But that is the function of this section: notes.
Most of the time, the things I’d write here are the stuff I’ve made up my mind to change later on in the revision process.
For example, I might have written that character A has a brown hair in the character’s physical description. And then suddenly I want to change the hair color to black. Instead of messing the original plan and sticking some white-outs on the character bio page, I usually just let the original page be, and write possible revision notes here on the “Character Notes” page.
Personally, a lot of these so-called “changes” I was thinking of are very volatile. I might decide to change the hair color to black by the time I finished writing chapter 3. But in chapter 5, I suddenly think that the hair color ought to be brown by default. I know exactly how indecisive I could be when it comes to changes like these, so instead of fighting my nature, I try to work with it.
By dedicating a notes page, I could just write in a bulleted list everything noteworthy about the specified character. For example, at the end of the writing process, a character note of a certain character could look like this:
- 7/22 – Change hair color to “black”
- 7/24 – Cancel the black hair. Brown is definitely better.
- 7/29 – Wrote that the character loves spicy food
- 8/1 – Mother is in Singapore, Father has already passed away
- 8/3 – Has an acrylic keychain that reads “I ❤ New York”
I always try to write out the dates of every note I wrote. That way, not only could I record my thoughts, I could also record the process, which, in my opinion, is equally as important.
And that basically concludes all the things I write inside my character sheets in my writer’s notebook. I know the list might sound daunting, but you don’t have to follow my methods exactly. These are just what I tried and used, and I feel comfortable enough with my current setup.
In any case, I always make sure to store every information regarding my characters inside the notebook. Not only do I get to reference these pieces of information frequently during the writing process, but I also tend to use them when I’m in editing mode, for obvious reasons.
Even if you skimp on the project statistics and plotting, as long as you have a solid character information and a very loose outline, I believe you can write whatever story you want.
Anyway, I hope you find this post useful! This series of NaNoWriMo Prep posts are really long, so I have no choice but to separate them into smaller, more manageable pieces. Keep yourselves posted for the fourth and final post next Saturday, everyone!
COMING UP NEXT
Part 4: Settings
- List of Locations
- Notes for each Location
- Story Timeline
- Project Writing Playlist
- Project Thank You List
- Revision Notes
Good luck with your Preptober, everyone!
I will be posting new content every Saturdays, be it writerly stuff, or just things that I like to write about. This includes my own stories, information about my books, and things that interest me. Keep yourself updated by following me on Twitter and Instagram.