Plotting Compelling Characters:

Writing Advice

-inspiration and individuality in succinct profile sheets-

-part one-

For many readers, an interesting premise only gets you so far. Without compelling protagonists, antagonists, and support staff, it can be difficult to get invested in the plot. Character questionnaires can be overwhelming, and, in many cases, they only vaguely relate to your unique story. So like many others, I am going to share my personal character profiles. This sheet is specifically made as a quick reference for consistency and are reserved for primary and secondary characters only. 

As with anything, my guide might not be exactly what you need as is, but I’m going to run you through my process step-by-step so that you can decide what helps and what just bogs you down.

This link gives you access to a fully completed sheet for my character, Abryn, if you would like to follow along visually.

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At the top, let’s start with what this person looks like.

Image Search:

I start on Pinterest or Google Images by searching for physical traits and picking images that match my mental image of major characters. This helps me weave diversity into my cast. I personally discourage looking up specific famous people; if you have a celebrity in mind, break down the features you want instead. 

EXAMPLE: for Abryn’s sheet, I might search “blonde hair brown eyes female,” “square jaw women,” and “plus size model.” Any image that resonates with me, I pin to a Pinterest board, save to a desktop folder, or screenshot it on my phone. Keep in mind that it’s unlikely to find the perfect image. And that’s completely fine! Pick a few images that have different elements important to you.

I have a bit of an art background and work in Photoshop on a daily basis, so I draw my characters and do some touchup work to the images to make them more similar, but that is unnecessary — it is simply something I enjoy doing. 

Hard Facts:

Now that I actually see my new friend, I actually write something! Under the character’s name, I assign an age, sex, height, and weight. This can be an appropriate section to add information such as gender and sexuality. In my manuscript, my characters all identify as their birth sex, so I didn’t use any additional descriptors. Sexuality is generally not a large factor in my manuscript, so I personally chose to keep many of my characters ambiguous. These might be more important to spell out in your document but — as with all forms of diversity — be wary of including characters for the sake of “having one.” In this case, sensitivity readers are your friends. 

EXAMPLE: I know Abryn is a mechanic; because of this, she logically has a worker’s build — not cut, but a bulky-strong. Adding muscle adds weight, so Abryn is heavier than what is “recommended” for her height.

Be intentional about the heights and weights of your characters. That can lend to worldbuilding. Tip: when assigning heights and weights, I Google “height to weight chart” for the sex of my character. Using this, I can more accurately describe if the character is thin, average, or heavy — and how much so. This reminds me to cognitively decide a character’s body type so that I can represent the different body types that exist in the world. Not everyone is a tiny model or a muscular meatcake.

After this, I break a character into the notable features, considering how they would be commonly described in context. To me, this means body, hair, and eyes. Keep it short and sweet. This is simply an accuracy reference. Only include relevant information.

You might also want to include things like hometown, current residence, and occupation.

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Next, I ask who this person is.

Personality Types:

Who all rolled their eyes at this inclusion? It sounds tired, but pre-existing personality types can be helpful. Hot Take: I use multiple personality groupings. I highly recommend using the following in tandem: Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, Love Languages, Personality Archetypes, and Star Signs. 

To save time, I am not going to explain each one, but instead encourage you to look up an explanation from someone more well versed than I am. Instead, I’ll explain why I use each.

Tip: I would NOT recommend taking the time to go through each test as each important character. That sounds exhausting. I never pull more than five-or-so descriptors from each. To make it easy, I’ll link each image I use to shortcut the tests. 

Let’s start with MyersBriggs; pick the set of descriptors that describes the character. BOOM. You just reverse-engineered the quiz. Now you can use the initials to tell how the character interacts with the world around them. For Abryn, I know that she is practical, fact-minded, and reliable — these are the descriptors for the “Logistician.” With that, I can label her an ISTJ.

Enneagrams and Star Signs serve a similar purpose, but rounds the character out, giving a few more descriptors and a role for them to play in the story. Star Signs give both strengths and weaknesses of each character and help you pick a birthday for your character. Again looking at Abryn, I highlighted her principled, self-reliant, and perfectionist tendencies when choosing.

Archetypes are another quick pick that tells you about the goals of the character. It’s easy to compare characters within this chart because it breaks down broad goals into four categories: providing structure, yearning for paradise, connecting with others, and leaving a mark on the world. Because it’s a short, twelve-area list, it’s easy to quickly sort your characters. With just a basic understanding of what I want this character to value, I place Abryn as Sage — one who explores spirituality with understanding.

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All of these are great, but let me tell you about the one I am most passionate about. 

Love Languages (acts of service, words of affirmation, physical touch, quality time, and gift giving) are probably the most important to me because ranking them tells you so many things in one punch! First, it tells you how the character wants to be interacted with. Second, it tells you how the character is likely to interact with others. And third, it tells you the worst way to interact with that character. 

And you know what that means: drama. 

EXAMPLE: My character, Kerrix prefers physical touch and words of affirmation to be comforted. He is speaking with Abryn who prefers gifts and doesn’t like physical touch or words. Now imagine they just lost a mutual loved one. Kerrix goes to hug his friend who pulls away quickly. Abryn retreats without speaking, coming across angry instead of sad. Abryn later brings flowers to Kerrix to apologize, but Kerrix is upset and doesn’t care for gifts. He overwhelms Abryn with his frustration, and because words are not really Abryn’s strong suit, she recoils again, straining the relationship further.

This can introduce realism and more holistic reasons for continued interpersonal fighting. But! Beware the soap-opera-effect. I can’t assure anything, but using this reasoning, I have had better luck avoiding the most hated drama trope, the “if they would’ve just said something, they could have avoided two chapters of pointless side-plot.”

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The last portion I’ll cover today is everything else.

Additional Information:

I always include an “additional” category that can be a catch-all for other specific quirks about that character. Think about the way the character walks or the common gestures that character uses. 

At this time, I look back at the character traits I laid out and think about people I know in real life. Their physical appearance, gender, race, or sexuality doesn’t need to line up. But I do try to find important people in my life to help me realistically show what makes one character different from another. It also helps me get out of writer’s block when I don’t know how a character would react. 

Family:

I keep this section close to the biography but not in it because I believe knowing the family has less of an impact than character traits. In this section, I keep descriptions very brief, limiting myself to names, two-to-three word descriptions, and the most important personality trait for each parent. Siblings, I typically only name. If there are several siblings, I also include who they get along with best.

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That was a lot.

So next week, I’m going to be posting part two in this thread. I’ll be discussing the second part of my character sheet. I’ll focus on less tangible aspects: Strengths and Weakness, Beliefs and Ambitions, Fears and Secrets, and more. I’ll see you again then!

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Stay safe!

– Rena Grace

2 thoughts on “Plotting Compelling Characters:

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