In my opinion, character development is one of the most entertaining parts of story creation. After all, stories are interesting events happening to interesting characters, so the better work you do at creating strong, compelling characters, the better they will carry the story forward for you. Whether you use a specific character development framework, such as the hero’s journey for example, as an author, you must know your characters intimately. As a matter of fact, your readers will only ever know about 10% of what you know. This will allow you to understand why the characters behave a certain way, and drive the plot naturally, riding on the character’s strengths and exploiting their weaknesses.
There are, of course, many ways to create characters, and most tutorials involve some sort of chart where you write down various things about your character and you keep building on them.
In my Master Novel Outlining and Tracking tool, I have included a character development worksheet and you can use it freely. But, I thought it would be a good idea to also write a separate post on using just that particular worksheet from the tool because I think it’s that important. And besides, creating characters is one of my favorite activities in the pre-writing period.
Below, I’m breaking down the different dimensions tracked by my sheet as well as the more advanced tools you can use to shape your character’s personality, or simply allow it to come alive.
Character Development – Basic Information
First things first: give your character some basic physical appearance and ground him/her into a culture within the context of your story’s universe. You can always come back and tweak these, but I’d probably start with the most basic details first and build from there.
From the worksheet perspective, I recommend you define the character’s name or nickname and his/her gender identity. This allows the worksheet to use the name further into the various questions which will make it easier for you to connect to the character.
Basic things to decide first:
- Date of Birth
- Place of Birth
- Father’s Name
- Mother’s Name
- Ethnic Background / Race
- Sexual Orientation
- Languages Spoken
- Body Type
- Eye Color
- Hair Color
- Hair Style
- Facial Hair
- Clothing Style
- Glasses / Contacts
- Facial Piercings
- Skin Color
Depending on the type of story you write, some of the items above might be unusual. For instance, if you are working on a Fantasy or Science Fiction story, the specifics of your world will define the breadth of options you have. Feel free to add any other specific parameters that are relevant to create your basic character. In my blog post, Creating a Fantasy World – Names, I discuss name creating in-depth, so feel free to check it out as well.
Next, we start to tap into the character’s life. We are still not getting too deep into his/her personality, we are hovering at the surface of their day-to-day life.
- Marital Status
- Military Background
- Occupation History
- Favorite Food
- Favorite Fiction Genre
- Special Skills or Abilities
- Life Philosophy
Some of the items in here might be later utilized in the story as methods to ground your character. So, maybe one of the favorite foods, let’s say hummus, is something that your character would eat at his or her grandparent’s house and is forever linked to a sentiment of peace and calmness. This means that some of the items you decide in here won’t stay static on paper as a “just because.”
Character Development – Questionnaire
This is by far my favorite part. You get to ask your character questions. To answer them, you, the writer, must put yourself in the shoes of your character. You have to become your character and give honest answers. This is a great moment to bond with your character. Remember that to some extent, you are the puppet master, yes. But don’t be too much of that. Let your character grow through your answers.
Ask these questions in order and don’t be afraid to give long-winded answers. The more you answer, the better the character will be shaped.
To make this more grounded in reality, I will use the example of a character called Dan. Please make sure to fill in the gender, name, and nickname of the character first (even if they’re temporary), because the worksheet automatically uses those to create proper questions in the questionnaire.
- Are there any distinguishing facial features?
- Any birthmarks or scars?
- Who are Dan’s friends?
- Who is Dan closest to?
- What happens when Dan is angry?
- What is Dan’s biggest fear? Who has he told this to? Who would he never tell this to?
- Does he have a secret?
- What makes Dan laugh out loud?
- Has he been in love? Had a broken heart?
- If Dan could have a superpower, what would it be?
- What does Dan like to eat?
- What does he like to read?
- What about sports?
- What does Dan like to wear on various occasions?
- Verbal Idiosyncrasies / Speaking mannerism
- Physical Idiosyncrasies / Noticeable body language
- When Dan thinks of his childhood kitchen, what smell does he remember? Why?
- Spring cleaning is due. What does Dan throw easily and what is he holding on to?
- What is Dan doing over the weekend?
- What is Dan’s strongest bad memory?
- What is Dan’s strongest good memory?
- What is Dan’s idea of perfect happiness?
- What does Dan think was his greatest achievement to date?
- What is Dan’s favorite occupation?
- What is Dan’s most treasured possession?
- What does Dan dislike the most?
- What is Dan’s greatest regret?
- What talent would Dan like to have?
- What trait Dan most deplores about himself?
- What trait does Dan most deplore in others?
- What does Dan most value in his friends?
- Who are Dan’s heroes in real life?
- Which living person does he most admire?
- Which words or phrases does Dan overuse?
- If Dan could change one thing about himself, what would it be?
Of course, you can add or edit the questions to match better with your world. For instance, the concept of “weekend” might not exist in your world so adapt the questions to your needs. Be wary of too many physical details and too many idiosyncrasies. I think a handful of them for your main characters are okay, especially if they are linked to something relevant. But, don’t give every single character a scar or birthmark because that just looks weird.
Story Context Questions
By now, we are starting to have a pretty decent idea of who the character is. His inner self is starting to shape up. That’s good. But now, we need to put him into the context of the story. The story might change the character, or it might not. One way or another, your character will act within the confinements of the story, so we need to have some ideas about the character’s state.
These are extremely important to establish the character’s motivation. If you have a great character doing things for no reason, readers will not connect with him or her. You need to know what they want and why they want it. It’s a very critical part of integrating your character into the story. If you don’t do this step correctly, your character’s actions will feel forced and readers will walk away.
- What does Dan want the most?
- Why does he want it?
- How far is he going to go to get it?
- If he fails, what happens?
- If he succeeds, what happens?
Character Arc Questions
Keep in mind: not all stories have to have a character arc. This being said, it’s always a good idea to understand what happens to the character throughout the story. Do they change? If so, how? If they don’t change, that’s something important to know as well.
- Describe Dan before the story began
- Describe Dan as the story starts
- How do the events change Dan?
- Describe Dan in the middle of the story
- Describe Dan at the end of the story
- What lesson did Dan learn?
- What lesson did Dan teach others / the reader?
Character Development – Bio
Now that you are done with the Q&A, you should spend some time and write down a short bio and a short storyline from the perspective of the character. The first part is probably easier, while the second part might not be known at the beginning of the story. If you are an outliner, you probably know what happens and you can project the story from the perspective of the character. If you don’t know, that’s okay. Leave this part for a later time. When you come back to it and write a few paragraphs to describe the story from the character’s perspective, interesting things happen. You discover new dimensions of your character and then you can go back and fold those back into the story.
- Character’s Backstory – brief bio, life events, what happened before the story
- Character’s Perspective – how is the story unfolding from the character perspective – do this part *after* you complete the scene list
This last piece of the puzzle is just a top-level attribute listing with levels. If you are familiar with gaming, this would be like building a game character. I don’t particularly use this a lot, but if you have groups of characters you could use this matrix as a comparison, or to make sure that a “team” covers all required characteristics for a certain task.
Attributes (Answer 1-10)
- Physical Strength
- Propensity for Evil
- Propensity for Good
I’ve written another article a while back about how to create memorable characters where I do a deep-dive into using the Myers-Briggs test to attach personality traits to your characters. My latest novel outlining tool has an embedded personality test that can produce quite an extensive response based on your answers to 60 questions. Once again, as part of your character development process, you are answering these questions as your character, so taking this test is actually lots of fun.
Below is a sample report of such a personality test generated from within the Master Novel Outlining and Tracking Tool. And, be honest: you’ll do this for yourself, too, won’t you? Go ahead, I did mine and it felt good…
Here are some additional links you could use to generate a personality test for your character online:
- 16 Personalities Free Personality Test
- Personality Perfect Free Personality Test
- Human Metrics Personality Test
Not everybody believes in the validity of the claims that the astrological sign defined by the date of birth has any effect on your personality. I’m not a very firm believer in that either, but I do see a lot of similar traits in people born in the same month or year. Regardless of that, using a zodiac sign report could give you some additional details about your character and provide some hints as to how he/she could behave. This is not to say that it will override what you want. After all, this is your character. But, perhaps it will give you some more ideas about how the character could behave or how he/she could approach different situations.
The worksheet available for download with this article also includes the Zodiac data. Simply, enter the birth date of your character and see what comes up in the Western and the Eastern Zodiac boxes. Note that the Chinese zodiac is approximate, especially for birthdays that fall in February or March. This is due to the way the Chinese New Year is calculated.
Use this tool as liberally as you want, or skip it altogether.
Character Development Worksheet Download
The Excel worksheet should print properly on two or three pages. You can put it up on the wall and check it every now and then as you progress through your novel. Make sure to create one worksheet for each major character. For minor characters, you can skip the questionnaire and the character arc questions but keep the story context questions. Every character should have motivation for their actions, and that includes the minor characters, so that part is essential.
Without any further ado, please download your copy of the character development worksheet below.
Character Development Worksheet
Character Development Worksheet
As always, if you find any bugs or have any ideas on how this could be improved, please comment below! If you enjoy this post, please share it on your favorite social media networks.
Now, before you go, I have…
3 Questions For You
- Do you use a framework for developing characters, or do they just come as you write?
- What are some of your favorite characters from literature?
- What do you feel is the toughest part of character development?
Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!
Hi there! I’m Iulian, and I want to thank you for reading my article. There’s a lot more if you stick around. I write about personal development, productivity, fiction writing, and more. Also, I’ve created Self-Growth Journey, a free program that helps you get unstuck and create the beautiful life you deserve. Enjoy!