What’s your hair color?
Why do you always feel observed by the news speaker?
And why did you bite that ferret when you were 14?
Please fill out your character template, Madame (or Sir)!
Filling out a character template is like letting the shrink take an awkwardly close look – except, here is the good news: It’s not you under scrutiny, it’s your protagonist Sally.
And of course, you are nothing like Sally, and we all love Sally and want to get to know her better (she never got that ferret taste out of her mouth, btw)!
Yes, we want her to feel like of flesh and blood and not like one of these cardboard stand-ups at the shopping mall offering you the most amazing ketchup brand with a wide artificial smile until some kid’s shopping cart is poking a huge dent into it.
But I digress.
Bottom line: If your characters feel real, your story will come alive and draw your readers in magnetically. This is how it works: When your readers love your character —> they really want her to do well —> and that means they are now emotionally invested into her and therefore into your story!
But here is the deal: In order to make your character feel as 3D as a hologram on LSD, you have to know her like the back of your hand – she has to ask you to pass the butter at the breakfast table, or else she is not real!!!
(Sidenote: As you can see, being a writer means walking a fine line between creativity and insanity.)
And this is what character templates are for – to get to know your characters like the back of your hand.
It’s basically just like it was with your imaginary friend in the treehouse back then – he was not visible, but you were able to describe exactly what he was doing or thinking.
In this post, take my hand and let me lead you on a wonderful journey through:
- 3 practical, highly detailed, downloadable character outline templates (that’s why you are here, admit it)
- 5 tactical tricks for filling them out
- The 5 best tips for applying them when writing
Now, before the great unveiling of the mighty templates, let’s take a look at why they will make your stories so much better.
Why Does a Character Profile Template Help You?
Here is why a character template is helpful:
1. You can do your character work upfront
You shouldn’t invent your entire character at the moment of writing. Some writers do, but I don’t recommend it. It’s just too much at once, like eating 20 schnitzels in one session.
Here is an elementary truth most aspiring writers don’t understand:
The more things you are doing at once while writing your first draft, the more the quality of your writing will suffer.
Remember it. And do as much of your background work as you can before writing your first draft.
2. It will lend your character more depth automatically
See, your character is like an iceberg: Only the tip of her personality is presented to your reader in an obvious way, while the biggest part stays hidden under water. Its heavy presence is only felt. This is what you should aim for.
If you have a clear idea of your character before you start writing, this iceberg effect happens automatically.
If you have a template, you will have a deep and complex character developed in the back of your head, and even if your readers don’t know about her traumas or where she grew up, it will shine through in her behavior. The result will be a captivating 3D character.
3. You can organize all the character info in one spot
Your character is wearing the tattoo of a rabid goldfish on her ankle, but on page 137 she says she hates tattoos. Your character has outstanding people skills, but in the 8th chapter asks a homeless person what he had for dinner.
That’s not good.
A character profile template helps you to avoid these rather awkward blunders. Frankly, if you are aspiring to become a good author, you shouldn’t have to waste any brain space on these banalities. It would be like training to become a great tennis player, but accidentally hitting basketballs in training.
Just collect all of the data and all of your thoughts about that specific character in one spot. That way, you can expand on them, build on them, revise them, connect them, and throw them at your parents (oh no, that was at Legoland! Ok).
It will be much easier to avoid amateurish blunders, create a consistent picture, and find the info you need, if you keep all of it in one document.
4. You will make sure you have all aspects of your character covered
Imagine you happily finishing your 5000 page family saga of the Qxlkrzzzpzz family (they are lizard people living on Mars), only to realize that your main characters never show any weaknesses. They all look like no-failure-possible flawless personas, just like any random Instagram account.
That’s not good either.
A person without a flaw doesn’t exist and you completely skipped this important aspect of their personalities. Now they look like comic figures. And you can’t just go back and quickly insert what’s missing either because character traits are tightly interwoven with scenes and plot.
But you could have avoided this mess by filling out a template first. The character sheets I’m about to unveil to you cover every possible aspect of a character. You might leave some parts out on purpose, which is fine, but you won’t just simply forget one.
And here they are.
Member of Qxlkrzzzpzz Family
A Template for Each Itch: Main Character Sheet Template, Minor Character Sheet Template, Extra Sheet Template
Not every character template is created equal. That’s because for your main character you need much more information and depth than for a doorman who just briefly appears.
Obvious template is obvious: You can below find three templates for three different types of character; Main, Minor and Extra. Main contains a wealth of detailed information, Minor has less info, and Extra lists the bare basics.
Note that with all three sheets, you get the opportunity to fill out a lot more info than will ultimately surface in the story (which is useful for your iceberg effect, see above).
How many of these sheets should you fill out? And are they more fun to fill out than a parking ticket?
I don’t know; and to answer your first question, it makes sense to fill out a sheet each for your 1-3 main characters, a sheet each for 3-6 supporting characters, and an armful of extra character sheets so nobody is left behind.
The exact number depends on how long your story is; how character-driven your writing, your story and your genre are; and on your taste. Pick your numbers, I’m sure you will do the right thing!
So without further ado (an expression that is usually mentioned after a lot of further ado), I present to you – ta-daaah… the downloads:
The following is a quick overview of the content of the (most ample) template.
The Character Template: 11 Sections with 149 Points
- Current Life
Where they live, with whom, how, and what they have.
Everything about their looks and physique, from hair to facial expressions to posture or makeup.
The sound of our voices, the words we use and how we like to express ourselves tell a lot about us.
How did they grow up, what kind of family do they come from, how was their education and what are their past job experiences?
- Character Traits
The core part of how your character will act, and the juiciest section of any characterization.
From family and friends to pets and neighbors – lay out the entire social matrix around your character.
- Romantic Relationships
Our romantic relationships also form us and tell a lot about us, so this section is dedicated to their romantic past.
- Types of Intelligence
What your character is smart about, and what about she isn’t smart. Remember that people have vastly different types of intelligence.
How they view their world, what makes them tick, what their moral standards are and much more is the meat of this section.
You are what you do on a regular basis. Take a look at how they behave in all areas of life, including spending, food and social habits.
- Likes and Dislikes
Anything they prefer or dislike, e.g. colors, movies, animals or holidays.
But how should you go about filling out the templates, you ask?
Let me give you some pointers.
How to Fill out Your Character Profile Template
You can, of course, fill out the sheets however you feel serves you best for your writing process. However, if you are the type who has to read an instruction manual before taking a common lighter into operation, here are a couple of thoughts:
- Take your time, don’t rush
If you are impatient to fill this out, it will result in a less interesting character. Instead, ponder your options. Ask yourself where you want to go. Let your character come together slowly and organically.
A well-thought-out sheet could even make part of your story write itself, if it makes your character “act on her own,” like that treehouse friend of yours from back then. Such a character sheet pays off, trust me.
Take Your Time! Ride the Snail!
- You don’t have to fill out all of the points (at once)
This is not a tax form, so there is no need for completeness. If you don’t know how to fill out a point, no problem; leave it out and come back to it later. Or never fill it out at all. Some points might be just as annoying as the math part of your homework was, I can see that. You don’t need to fill in every single line, these are merely options laid out for your convenience, Madame (or Sir)!
Remember, quality is much more important than quantity. And the most important thing is that you develop a sense for who your character is. Often the subtleties of a character’s personality reveal themselves to you as you go along.
- Questions to ask yourself while filling this out
Here is a quick emergency manual, in case you get stuck. For each point you get stuck with, ask yourself:
- Does this fit with the plot? Does my character’s behavior maybe even open up new interesting directions for the plotline?
- Does the trait or background info complement the other traits or infos of the template or connect well with them? Does it draw from other points or point to them?
- Is this trait or background info interesting to me? Or am I just going through the motions while assigning it to my poor and exceptionally boring character?
- Get inspired by real people
If you run out of ideas, that’s understandable. In that case, your secret weapon are your personal surroundings: Take a step back and think about the human cabinet of curiosities that surrounds you!
Who comes close to certain personality parts of your character? Whom could you use to get a mental image of your character and get inspired, or whom could you model them after? Your character will often turn out to be a hybrid of several people you know; for example, it could have your mother’s sharp sarcasm and your ex-husbands big ego.
I actually find that the people closest to me deliver the best blueprints – because a quick acquaintance is just a cardboard character in my mind, but my closest people I know inside out and they are to me the most 3D a character could ever get, with all of their flaws and virtues.
- You can also get inspired by the internet
Another place you can draw great inspiration from are the endless depths of the internet. You can find many lists of whatever character attributes you need; most importantly lists of character traits, or of strengths and weaknesses, like this massive list of 281 character flaws I created.
- If you are still stuck…
Still stuck? Ok, try this:
…look at any other point of your sheet already filled out and ask yourself: “What have I experienced with other people with this trait or this background or these relationships?”
…OR go the opposite route and ask yourself: “What would be a very unusual combination with this trait, this background or these values? What would nobody expect?”
Looking for the unexpected can make for exciting turns. However, only use this second option if you find a way for it to make sense.
Look at it like a birthday present: Everybody likes surprises, but not if it is gloves made out of sourdough. Some things just don’t make sense and it’s better to gift a plain uninventive voucher. Sorry, dad!
- Play around with Personality Type Indicators
Another place to draw ideas from is personality type indicators, like the Myers-Briggs indicator. You can find a lot of info about these classifications online. Then see what makes sense and put your character’s personality together like a jigsaw puzzle!
Finally, your character template is filled out! Now let’s see how you can best make use of it during writing.
How to Use Your Character Chart Template
Now that you have pages and pages of information ready, how do you best put them to use? Here is your recipe:
- Put yourself into your character’s shoes
While you write, your job is to put yourself into your character’s shoes. Start with this:
- If you are a beginner, before you write a scene, read through all relevant character sheets twice.
- If you are more experienced, just glancing over the sheets might be enough.
Then fully put yourself into the character’s shoes and observe how she reacts! While you do this, keep in mind:
- Your character is always right
From our very own points of view, we always have our reasons to act like we do.
No matter how clumsy, mean or stupid what your character says or does, make it clear that he feels he is right; at least at this particular moment.
Yes, just like your wife, your character is always right. Keep in mind that Genghis Khan probably meant well too (not comparing your wife to Genghis Khan, unless you insist).
Characterization is the art of fully empathizing with your character, but only for a minute – then it’s the opposite character’s turn to receive your full empathy. This is what it means to really put yourself into your character’s shoes.
- No Ultimate Answer
Human psychology is complex. Therefore, there is no final answer as to how your character has to act.
Maybe she will act according to her values. Maybe she will act according to her feelings, which are at this particular moment the complete opposite of her values. Human behavior is difficult to predict – make your character human!
- Give your readers a base case
Keeping this human randomness in mind, you should still give your readers a basic behavior pattern they can recognize.
Would your character rather pull back from a fight, or would they go to get the baseball bat from their car? Your reader should be able to guess which one is likely. This is your base case that gives everybody a general outline of who your character is.
- Sometimes They Act Surprisingly
Once in a while though, let them react unexpectedly:
- Look at their character sheet: Can you see how, with their background info, their unexpected action somehow makes sense? E.g. a character is usually calm and collected, but when they see a child burning ants, they completely lose it. That’s because their brother tortured their puppy when they were little.
- Be careful not to do this at pivotal moments of your plot, or your reader will feel played by a deus ex machina.
- If you want to use unpredictable behavior as the reason for a quick plot turn, you can do that, but make sure your character has displayed this behavior at least once before.
Sometimes Humans Act Surprisingly
- Introducing Background Info
Your reader doesn’t need to know everything that’s on your character sheet (iceberg effect, see above). However, if you decide that you want your audience to receive certain background info, then be on the lookout where you could insert this info in a discreet way.
Make notes about good opportunities to bring in background info. Take a look at my post about background info for how to handle this.
Writing Prompt: Test Your Character Template
Every post on this blog features a writing prompt, so you can practice what I preach (that’s how the proverb goes, right?). The prompt for this post writes itself:
- Fill out one of the character sheets
- Then put your character into the following scene: Your character’s sister asks her to donate a kidney to her. What happens?
- Here comes the test: Write out a short summary of that scene. Do you have a clear idea of how your character reacts and what she says? Do certain reactions make much more sense than others, or does every possible reaction feel kind of suitable?
- If it’s the former, congratulations! You have just created a 3D character.
- Now don’t be shy and post a summary of your scene (and of your character’s personality/background) in the comments! It will help you reflect on your exercise.
Your Character Outline Template Will Propel Your Story to the Next Level
There is no doubt that strong, memorable characters will never be forgotten by your readers for as long as they live – you probably remember characters from some books you read 20 years ago.
To get to characters like these, a character sheet is an indispensable tool. It will organize your preparation, free your mind to focus on your first draft, and create a deep, well-rounded and captivating character.
A character template empowers yours writing and takes it to the next level. Finally, your writing powers will go exponential, if you keep several great main character templates ready. They will be the ultimate aces up your sleeve and will make your story unforgettable!
Image Credits: Cover Image: leksuwarin/123rf; Lizard with Sunglasses: illustratiostock/123rf; Gentleman on Snail: alexpokusay/123rf; Myers-Briggs Personalities: mininyxdoodle/123rf; Man Jumping out of Cake: popaukropa/123rf;