Thursday, June 12, 2014

Character Dossiers: What goes in my Character files

I've read a lot about character development and downloaded a boatload of questionnaires and other tools. Some of them boggle my mind. One hundred questions for your protagonist to answer? An MMPI (Multi-Phasic Personality Index) would be far more accurate and only take a couple of hours. I spent three days (on and off to be sure) doing that one for one of my characters.

Finally I came up with something of my own, with those things which helped me see the character clearer, hear their voice, know where they came from, and where they are going. Although not as detailed as those one hundred questions, it works for me and, yes, I plan on posting one of my actual dossiers later. Just for the fun of it. Care to take a look at the working file?


 Full Name of Character


Insert photographs here if appropriate. I like using them. Some of them would make people wonder. No, the character does not share the traits of the person in the photograph. It’s just a focal point for me to begin with. I don't share these photographs even though I have no problem showing a friend one of my character files. They will only see this.

Family Background

Family history, parents, siblings, socio-economic background, relationship with parents and siblings. I have been known to insert a family tree back three generations or more and/or forward at least two. Yes, complete with dates.
.Yes, I know so many characters are virtual orphans, either estranged and not interacting with family or literal orphans. It makes the writing easier, fewer characters to deal with but I’m of the firm belief: everyone has family. How they affect the character or whether they appear in the story is something else again. Sometimes it’s a little and they don’t appear at all. Sometimes it’s a lot and they can either haunt the character or make an actual physical appearance. It all depends.

Physical Description

Full physical description: height, weight, body build, hair and eye color. Any distinguishing physical characteristic if present. Wardrobe choices or how they dress. What they are comfortable in and what they are not.
The way they move in certain situations. Sports and other physical activities where germane and appropriate.

Educational Background

Schools attended. GPA. Any honors achieved. College major and/or minor where appropriate. School activities. Response to education on any level.

Employment Record

Jobs they have held, sometimes from high school. Current job.

Quirks, Habits, and other Tidbits (always a section in progress)

How they take their coffee or favorite beverage. A physical tic like chewing on a cuticle when deep in thought. Morning person or night owl?  Do they talk to themselves or in their sleep? Nickname or names and sometimes why they are called that. What are they talented at? What do they fail at miserably?
In short almost anything. I label this section as one always in progress because I don’t know everything. Like anyone else of my acquaintance things are revealed as I get to know them. So this section grows along with the story. It sounds a little psychotic but so far it works for me.

Current Dilemma and Adjuncts

I don’t do themes, as in “I think I will write a novel about ‘love conquers all’ or something similar”, but I do know what is bothering my character at the very beginning. What they consciously want to change in their life. This is the place for that. Sometimes, as I think on it, other plot points or even a synopsis will grow here as things progress. No, I don’t outline. I’m a pantser. But I will come back here to document how things are going.

A Few Quotes

These are direct quotes from the character which may or may not appear in the story. Sometimes they will come from a ‘snippet’ which doesn’t appear and becomes back story. Wherever they come from they reflect something about the character and their voice.

Fast Forward

If the story is set in the past this is where I do a brief sketch of where they are now, emotionally and physically. Essentially, what happened after the story ended. Usually I do it in some detail; sometimes I know too much and cannot write it. With one of my stories I know they die and I don’t want to write about it in the character sketch. Right now I need to see them as alive and vibrant.
Why I write this section is a question which has several answers. My own curiosity is one of them. Sometimes it’s a jump start. I need to write something so I start thinking about where that particular character is now which leads me back to the original story. How did they get to this flash forward? A reader really doesn’t need to know but I find it useful from time to time.
Another answer is more part of my personal writing philosophy: I know every story is a never ending one. One story leads to another in a character’s lifeline. Not every story needs to be told. Some of them are downright boring or would be to a reader. Occasionally I will see a story later down the line. This can be a place to save that germ of an idea. Heck, it could be a better story than the one I’m currently working on.

A Back Story

This section doesn’t always appear but some characters have a story in their past which affects the story being told now. Sometimes they are fairly complete; sometimes they are not. Some examples of this are “Judith” (for Gerry in Rain) and “Becoming Noona” (for Aaron in Snow).
Doing an “info dump” does not set well with a lot of folks so I refrain from telling all the stories in a character’s life in the actual novel. But I also like writing them and I recall reading somewhere to the effect that all these back stories effect the writing even if they don’t show up on the page. Much like 90% of an iceberg is below water and not seen.
And not all of the information in a character file ends up in the novel. Egads and merciful heavens, no! Wouldn't that be boring?

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