So I have a question. How do you all set up your character notes? I’ve tried so many ways, but nothing has really clicked yet…
I have a questionnaire I work through for my characters. It starts with basics (name, age, etc) and then goes through physical (appearance, gait) communication (accent, way of speaking, body language) psychology (personality & personality type, habits, fears, goals & motivation, what do they do on a rainy day), relationships (family, friends, how strangers and acquaintances see them, what they would want in a partner) history (back story) and other (magic, subplot). It’s more in depth than that quick list, and I work through the questions for each character.
It takes a while to start will, and generally at the beginning I don’t have everything filled out, or at least not in detail. I add to them as I work through the story and other characters further. Some characters and stories are easier than others.
I’ve been adding questions to the questionnaire for ages. Things that are supposed to make me think about then, not just “What’s their personality?” More like, “How do they reach to XYZ?” Putting them in these situations in my head helps for me to work them out more in depth.
One of the reasons Dabble doesn’t have a dedicated character section and character docs is because there are so many ways to do character notes. I do have some ideas that will help without forcing a certain pattern or structure on you, but that isn’t the highest priority yet.
For me personally, I don’t like the long list of items to fill out such as “Favorite movie”, “Occupation”, and “Favorite color”. Leaving them blank makes me feel like it is incomplete, but I don’t want to fill them out for every character either. Most of those details don’t matter to the story.
I like the character interview. Asking them questions pertinent to the story world or other characters and having them answer in their own voice and with their own opinions. I think it’s a fun way to explore the personality of the character.
I like the idea of character “hooks”. Bits of description or attributes for a character that help you visualize and remember them well. J.K. Rowling used these well, such as Hagrid’s beetle black eyes, Malfoy’s pale complexion, and Filch’s cat. Pretty much every time you see one of these characters the hook is used to solidify that character in the reader’s mind.
Pro tip: If you use Dabble in the browser, you can copy the URL when you are on one note and then use it as a link in another note. This allows you to list the relationships between characters in a way that you can click on the link and go to that page. E.g. in “Reggie is friends with Sue.” you could select “Sue” and link it to her page.
Honestly, I use the template I kidnapped (and modified slightly) from Scrivener. So, in essence:
Role in Story:
It gives me enough of a framework to keep it consistent across a story’s cast but gives me enough flexibility that I can jot down whatever information I need to help keep me on track. And with a setup like Dabble’s, where you can interconnect notes via links (which I didn’t know, thanks @Jacob!), it’ll still work very smoothly. Hope this helps!
This is my first time using Dabble, so I just moved over my method from raw text files.
I like to begin with the principal characters, and write a short bio, in the perspective of the story. So it has little to do with the early years of the antogonist, for example, unless they bear on his/her actions in the tale.
As I go along, I fill out more of the bio, as needed, along with a diagram of relationships. Really pleased to learn how to link one note to another, Jacob, so thanks for that!
An alternative to a character interview is to take them out for coffee. I first saw it suggested by thebibliosphere.tumblr.com and have had success with it since. It also works well as a warm up or writing exercise. What do they order? Where do they choose to sit? What do you two talk about? It can still operate very much like an interview, but putting it in a setting like a cafe both gives me more direction and more freedom with it.
I love that. It makes it easier to picture in your mind.
And if you find the conversation getting boring, you can have a man with a gun enter the coffee shop to see what your character would do.
I love the “Take out for coffee” suggestion.
Personally, I lifted most of KM Weiland’s Scrivener template into a separate book, then I just cut&paste into whatever new character I make. I use these questions (and pare down as appropriate) plus Becca Puglisi’s " 7 Things Your Character Is Hiding" guide - see below. Becca just published the “7 Things” article yesterday on Katie’s site (https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/things-your-character-is-hiding/ ), but I love it already, so I incorporated it in my template.
Place of birth:
Economic/social status growing up:
Preexisting unique skills he will use to solve plot problems:
If he could do anything other than what he does, what would it be:
How people view this character:
Spends time with:
Wishes to spend time with:
People who depend on him and why:
People he most admires:
Relationship with God:
Outlook on life:
Opinion of himself:
What, if anything, he would like to change about his life:
Lying to self about:
Optimistic or pessimistic:
Real or feigned:
Self-control and self-discipline level:
What people notice first:
How he sees himself:
Five words he would use to describe himself:
Five words best friend would use use to describe him:
Identities of this character (mother, lover, soldier, etc.) in order of priority to this person:
Degree of self-awareness:
Greatest joy (thing that’s keeping him alive):
Strongest/weakest character traits:
Three rules he lives by:
Does that ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
Default personality trait:
Default argument tactic:
Things that make him irrationally angry:
Things that make him cry:
What people like best about him:
Interests and favorites:
Best way to spend a weekend:
Great gift for this person:
Laughs or jeers at:
Ways to cheer up this person:
Ways to annoy this person:
Hopes and dreams:
Plan to accomplish these dreams:
Worst thing he’s ever done:
He is the kind of person who:
What you love most about this character:
Why readers will sympathize with this person right away:
Voice on the page:
Corresponding psychological maneuver (delusions, obsessions, compulsions, addictions, denial, hysterical ailments, hypochondria, illnesses, behaviors harming the self, behavior harming others, manias, and phobias):
Anecdote (Defining Moment):
Being able to write realistic, consistent, multi-dimensional characters is vital to gaining reader interest. Doing so first requires we know a lot about who our characters are—you know, the obvious stuff: positive and negative traits, behavioral habits, desires, goals, and the like. But it’s not always the obvious parts of characterization that create the most intrigue. What about the things your character is hiding?
Everyone hides. We hide the goals we know are wrong for us, opinions that may turn others against us, or feelings and desires that make us feel vulnerable—basically anything with the potential for rejection or shame .
The same should be true for our characters. When characters are cagey out of a need to protect themselves from emotional harm, readers understand that. It makes the characters more authentic and can pique your readers’ interest as they try to figure out the secret or worry over what will happen when it comes to light.
To add this layer of depth to your characters, you first need to know what’s taboo in their minds—not only what they’re hiding, but why . Here are some common things your character may feel compelled to conceal from others.
Desires are an important part of who your characters are. These desires drive their actions and decisions in the story. While these wants are often transparent, there are situations in which the character may not feel comfortable sharing them.
Maybe she’s secretly pining for her sister’s ex, or she longs for a career forbidden by her parents, or she wants to fight her boss’s unethical behavior but is afraid of losing her job.
Forbidden or dangerous desires can add an element of risk, upping the stakes for the character and making things more interesting for readers.
Everyone has fears. Many of those fears are perfectly acceptable, which makes it safe for us to share them. It’s the ones that make us feel weak or lessen us in the eyes of others that we keep in the dark.
Think about uncommon fears, such as being afraid of a certain people group, physical intimacy, or of leaving one’s house.
Unusual fears like these should always come from somewhere—maybe from a wounding event or negative past influencers. Make sure there’s a good reason for whatever your character is afraid of.
3. Negative Past Events
Speaking of wounding events, we each have defining moments from the past that we’re reluctant to share with others or even acknowledge ourselves.
What’s something that could have happened to your characters that they’ll go to great lengths to keep hidden? What failures or humiliating moments might they alter in their own memories to keep from facing them?
Wounds are formative on many levels, so it’s important to figure out what those are and how they may impact the character.
4. Flaws and Insecurities
Being flawed is part of the human experience. There are things about ourselves we don’t want to examine too closely and which we definitely don’t want others to know about.
For characters, these flaws often manifest as insecurities or negative traits (such as being weak-willed, unintelligent, or vain). Whether these weaknesses are real or only perceived, characters will try to downplay them.
But part of their journey to fulfillment includes facing the truth and acknowledging the part their flaws play in holding them back. To write their complete journeys, your need to know what weaknesses they’re keeping under wraps.
5. Unhealthy Behaviors
Sometimes characters exhibit behaviors or habits they know aren’t good for them. Maybe these behaviors stem from a wounding event or an unhealthy desire. Maybe they really want to change, but they don’t know how.
Whether it’s a promiscuous lifestyle, a gambling addiction, or a compulsion to self-harm, they’ll expend a lot of energy to keep these behaviors hidden.
Revealing these behaviors to readers, while hiding them from other characters, is a great way to remain true to the human experience while also building reader interest.
6. Uncomfortable Emotions
While it’s healthy to embrace and express a range of emotions, characters are not always comfortable with all the feelings. This may occur with emotions that are tied to a negative event from the past. It may be an emotion that makes the character feel vulnerable or is culturally unacceptable.
The character will want to mask any uncomfortable emotions, often disguising them as something else: embarrassment is replaced with self-deprecation, or fear manifests as anger. This duality of emotion is important because it humanizes characters for readers and adds a layer of authenticity that might otherwise be missing.
7. Opinions and Ideas
Everyone wants to be liked. To gain the respect of others, we often go so far as to sacrifice honesty.
If an opinion isn’t popular, your characters may keep it to themselves. If they have good ideas others won’t appreciate, they won’t share them—or they’ll get the ideas out there in a way that allows them to avoid taking ownership.
Peer acceptance is important to everyone; that need, and the secrets that accompany it, is something that every reader will be able to relate to.
Deception—whether deliberate or subconscious—is part of the human experience. When your characters hide things from others, they become deeper and more layered and avoid turning into clichés. They’ll come across as more authentic to readers, who will be able to relate to them. It also can build empathy as readers see the character headed the wrong direction. A lot of good can result from taking the time to discover what your characters are hiding. So put on your Nosy Pants and get to work!
Thanks @dweller! As a hobbist writer, jumping into my stories with NO knowledge about the what and where at all, this seems very helpful.
I’ve been looking at templates on Evernote, not only for characters, but different ways for creating a story from a core idea
I also just copied them to Scrivener and now I have them in Dabble … but still not really using any of those.
@dweller I don’t go into nearly the detail you do, but I love-love-LOVE the Emotion Thesaurus (as well as the Emotional Trauma Thesaurus.)
I have all six of the Thesaurus books, and I agree, I absolutely love them. I think the Emotional Wound Thesaurus is my favourite, though the Emotion one is probably second.
Though they’re expensive (about $50AUD a pop, though hopefully they’re cheaper in the US), I’d recommend them. I love flicking through them and just seeing what kind of ideas I get from the entries.
The Emotional Wound Thesaurus is the one I mistakenly called the “Emotional Trauma” Thesaurus. But it’s unbelievably helpful for writing damaged characters.