Plotting Compelling Characters:

Writing Advice

-inspiration and individuality in succinct profile sheets-

-part two-

Welcome to the second half of my character sheet break-down. If you’d like to start from the beginning, click here to check out part one. For everyone caught up, I have five points to talk about today. Let’s jump in with a brief introduction to the topic.

Previously on RGS Writes… 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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Let’s talk about character’s skill set.

Strengths & Weaknesses:

When considering a character’s abilities, the most important focus should be balance. If you want your characters to be relatable, they must have both. In the real world, no one is made up of 100% weaknesses or 100% strengths. Always strive to have equal amounts; also keep in mind severity. A character is not balanced if the main three strengths are “strongest person alive, can compel anyone to their side, and isn’t afraid of anything.” (I’m looking at you, anime.) Then their biggest weaknesses are “can’t find clothes that fit them right, their friends love them too much, and they don’t know how to fix a car.” While unbalanced can be used intentionally as satire or comedy (I’m looking at you, OnePunch Man) it is not relatable. One of my favorite ways to balance S/W is to have them feed each other.

For example: My character, Abryn, is particularly observant; it’s one of her great strengths. She notices small details very naturally. But this comes back on her two-fold. She often doesn’t know what to do with all the information she picks up. She ends up thinking very little about important things OR she spends all her time over-thinking things that were not intentional or meaningful. That is a significant weakness, because it pushes heavily into her Mis-belief and her Biggest Flaw (Which we’ll talk about next.)

Polarizing traits like this adds to the depth of the character. A bad trait that can be good poses the question of “how could that come back into play later?” It can set up satisfying payoff or devastating heartbreak if a trait denoted “good” or “bad” changes the trajectory of the story when used unexpectedly.

Internal Conflict:

I group this as a sub-category of S/W, but want to clarity that it is a bit of a separate entity. While I encourage you to have as many Strengths as Weaknesses, that list does not necessarily include the Internal Conflict: the Biggest Flaw and the Mis-belief. In a way, the two build off of each other. However, while S/W can be external or internal, the Internal Conflict is about what your character is doing to hold themselves back.

The Biggest Flaw of a character is often either a culmination of two or more of their weaknesses or the root of multiple weaknesses. And this manifests itself throughout the story. A big flaw can be anything, but consider making it deeper than a surface-level issue. Keep in mind that it is the “biggest flaw;” it must have screen-time and present itself as a problem. Again, I think it is realistic to occasionally show that flaws can be beneficial some times — that can be a reason they continue to exist in a person. But it is common and satisfying to have a character face and overcome that flaw over the course of the book or series.

The Mis-belief, much like the flaw, is something that is ingrained and deeply rooted into the character’s mind and lifestyle. It grows organically from past events in your characters life and becomes the lens through which they see the world. Over and over again, the character will interpret and react to situations in a way that continues to solidify the false way they see the world. The important part of your main character’s Mis-belief is that it is directly related to the story you’re telling. It ties into the themes that mean the most to you. Part of their journey is the way they conquer this lie that they have told themselves. Author and Youtuber Abbie Emmons has a fantastic video on the topic that goes into a lot more depth than I do here. I recommend you check it out here. After this post, of course.

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We’ll finish up with by rounding the character out.

Goals, Ambitions, Fears, Secrets:

To flesh out characters even more, I keep an entire section for smaller details that make the character feel more real. These additions are not as vital to character development in terms of moving the story forward. I treat this section as a pile of nuggets; they are things I know about the character that might become relevant, but also might never be said. This might be the place where you talk about your character’s dislike of snakes or their dream to become an astronaut — specifically if the story does not revolve around those things. I consider the person I based this character off of and think about how their nuances make them real and unique from others I know.

Hobbies and Quirks:

Everyone loves the “quirky character,” but I think that term has been reduced and made exclusive to a very specific personality type — the eccentric, odd, and most often female or LGBT. It’s almost become a PC description for someone weird but lovable. It’s not seen as a very “protagonist-y” trait, so quirks are assigned to sidekick characters or specifically atypical heroes. Limiting who has quirks and who doesn’t feels unrealistic to me. Every person you meet from the rugged badass to the sexy seducer to the wise mentor as quirks, sayings, or ticks specific to them. Quirks should not be reserved for the “manic pixie dream-girl” or the “cloud-cuckoo-lander” tropes. Greatness often lies in the details of a work. Details compel readers to keep going back to the same book or movie-goers to rave and rewatch a well done film.

Not every book should include that the protagonist played tennis in high school or can lick their elbow. But it’s rewarding to notice them repeating a gesture their mom uses or playing the piano absentmindedly when they mull over a big decision.

Emotions:

I love finding quirks in a character’s emotional reactions. Being consistent with these ticks can add a subtle layer of subtext for the reader to find in between the lines of your manuscript. In my WIP, I wanted to focus on three commonly repressed emotions– sadness, nervousness, anger– and lying. While lying isn’t really an emotion, people have quirks that can give them away. Lying is a reoccurring theme in my work, so it is important to me to differentiate each person’s most notable give-away. This slot is very specific to my current manuscript and might not be relevant to everyone. But it also might add a layer of consistency to tense pieces, reminding you as the author to let the characters show what they’re feeling, even if only in a fleeting moment.

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And there you have it. My character sheet rundown. As I said at the beginning, no sheet is one-size-fits all. In the week since I uploaded part one, I have already gone in and moved things around to be easier to access. I’ve pulled a specific place to put motivations and moved where I denote their optimistic/pessimistic outlook on life. This character sheet is not exhaustive. It doesn’t go into backstory or plot anything for the future. I lay out which ever characters are in the scene and let the sheet help me breathe life and individuality into my little book children. I hope this post was helpful to you!

Stay safe!

-Rena Grace

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