Character Charts: A Writer's Aid
The Devil Is in the Details
While I don't always use character charts for short stories—unless a character features in more than one story—I have found them incredibly practical and useful for my novels. Looking up a particular piece of information on a tidy chart is so much easier than thumbing through chapter after chapter, hunting down the tiny details you need to keep your information accurate.
The Purposes of Character Charts
- helps create whole characters
- find data easily
- prevents errors
I have a ring-binder file kept solely for character charts. Each character has their own plastic envelope held securely within the binder. If I want to check up on details of a character's favourite music or their sister's name, for example, all I have to do is reach to the shelf next to my computer and there it all is.
Filling in Character Charts
While filling-in character charts might seem time-consuming initially, that investment of effort will pay back dividends. Not only will it save you time in the long-term, but the process will help you to think carefully about your fictional character—who they are, how their life is, what their motives are, what is important to them.
Working through the chart will help flesh-out your fictional character, making them more believable to readers. If you know your fictional character thoroughly, they will appear more alive, more three dimensional, in print.
Bring Characters to Life
You may well find that you get fresh ideas for subplots, too, as you visualise the character more completely. I've found this to be the case on a number of occasions.
You may not necessarily use all the details. For example, there is no need to pen an item-by-item description of everything in a room, or to mention your fictional character's best friend in infant school—unless it is absolutely relevant. Just give the general impression of a place or time, and mention one or two specific items or events if they are actually vital to the plot. Even then, it's best to keep it brief.
Likewise, you may never need to write much about a character's siblings, other than to mention them in passing, but it's handy to have their names and a brief memory-jog about how they interact with your main characters.
Visual Prompts for Writers
Visual prompts are very useful, I find. As well as my written charts, I have photos of the kind of car a character would own—largely because I know next to nothing about cars, and so through research I know what kind of car a person of their income bracket could probably afford, then work out whether they'd opt for something practical, sporty or flashy, then find a picture of something which fits the bill.
Character sketches are useful too. You don't need to be a great artist as these prompts are for your eyes only. Or you could use pictures of people who look like your character—or even take a picture of someone who catches your eye for whatever reason, and build a fictional personality around the photo.
The Devil Is in the Details
You might wish to use similar visual references for your characters' houses, rooms, favourite locations, workplaces, etc. If a method works for you, use it.
Over time, you might need to go over your chart and add changes. For example, a character might have a new hairstyle, change jobs, move house, meet a new lover. I keep the old chart and put this behind the new one, so if need be I can double-check on details of the character's history. Should you need to create a timeline at some future point, this will make that task much easier.
With regard to addresses of private houses and workplaces, it is advisable not to mention exact, real locations in case the real-life owners justifiably object. However, a brief description might be incorporated, along the lines of your character working in a glass and steel high-rise in the main business quarter of a particular city, who then goes home to a modern bijou apartment overlooking a specific river. That's just a guideline, of course.
Most people have little habits, such as fiddling with a shirt button or tapping their pen on the desktop. Or they will use the same phrase habitually, such as, "Yeah, right," or "Whatever you say." If you give one or two quirky habits to your characters —no more or you risk overkill—then this will help the reader to get a feel for their personality. Of course, if you deliberately want to create an eccentric character, then add further distinctive habits by all means.
Likewise, everyone has a set of likes and dislikes. One of your fictional characters might dislike coffee, for example. If at a later point your manuscript describes them as drinking coffee, unless you've woven in a small explanation as to why they're doing this, it will look odd to the reader. Keeping character charts will greater lessen the chances of this kind of error.
Use and Adapt My Character Chart Below
The free character chart below is one which I've designed after having experimented with a number of different charts. Having used them myself for a few years, I've gradually weeded out superfluous details and added those things which I have found useful.
You may find that you need to adapt the chart to suit your needs, for example by adding a list of weapons owned by your fictional character or adding lists of specific skills. With my own character charts, I also add a brief history of each character's life, plus a reminder of which novels and short stories they've been featured in. This helps to keep their individual stories clear in my mind. Give it a try—and let me know how you get on.
Free Character Chart: A Tool for Writers
Feel free to print this chart for your own personal use. No unauthorised republishing online or elsewhere is permitted. Link to this webpage instead.
- Full Name:
- Hair colour:
- Hair style:
- Eye colour:
- Glasses or contacts?
- Distinguishing features:
- Date of birth:
- Astrological sign: Western, Chinese
- In a relationship?
- Personal philosophy:
- Favourite colour:
- Dress sense:
- Cosmetics & toiletries:
- Favourite foods:
- Favourite drinks:
- Favourite music:
- Favourite films:
- Favourite authors:
- Dislikes & pet hates:
- Choice of newspapers & magazines:
- Verbal expressions:
- Talents & strengths:
- Hobbies & activities:
- Ideal night out:
- Ideal holiday:
- Personal ambitions:
- Relationship with parents:
- Relationship with siblings:
- Description of childhood home:
- Estate agent-type description:
- Description of front exterior:
- Description of rear exterior:
- Description of main entrance:
- Description of ground floor:
- Description of basement (optional):
- Description of upper floors:
- Style of furnishings:
- Specific furnishings:
- Current employment:
- Date employment commenced:
- Person/people responsible to:
- People responsible for:
- Feelings about work:
- Career ambitions:
- Previous employment:
- Workplace address (approx):
- Description of exterior:
- Description of main entrance:
- Description of workspace:
- Description of canteen:
- Vehicles owned:
- Skillset (e.g. weapons):
- Particular items owned:
© 2010 Adele Cosgrove-Bray