This week’s post is all about characters. The aim is to create in-depth and consistent characters without the need for endless details. I have filled out many a character development sheet in the past, and my problem with them is that they’re often so long I never finish them. There will be no sections about your character’s favourite food or childhood memory here.
Each character development sheet will have 6 sections:
- External Goals
- Internal Goal(s)
- Internal Conflict(s)
- Quirks, Habits & More
You can either 1) create your own document with these headings or 2) download the free worksheet and fill it out. There’s 10 character pages in the worksheet to start, but if you need more you can make a copy of the file and continue on.
Let’s Get Started!
Section 1: Names
Before I say anything, I strongly encourage you to put a random name here until you have finished filling out all the sections for your character. If you already have a name in mind, I won’t hold you back, go for it. But if you haven’t firmly decided one way or another, just enter a random name until after you’ve completed the character development sheet. You’ll have an easier time choosing at the end because you’ll have a better idea of your character then. We’ll return to names at the end!
Interlude – External vs. Internal
I want to take a moment to break down the difference between external and internal conflict with the help of a fellow blogger. Shannon Curtis has a wonderfully short, to the point, and simple explanation of the differences between these two on her site here. I’ll summarize the important bits in this post, but please visit Shannon’s site if you’re interested in the whole article.
Last week when we discussed conflict I described it as something that makes your character change their routine or drives them to action. More specifically, this describes external conflict.
For example: Jimmy and his family are living La Di Do Da Day in a farm near Nashville when they see the atmosphere burning up, they have to go underground to escape the heat of the sun
In comparison, Shannon describes internal conflict as: “[…] the struggle that occurs within your character, and is driven by your character. They have a want, need or desire that arises from their experience (motivation), but in order to fulfil that want, need or desire they must face and conquer this inner demon. This is where they confront their self-concept and either grow or fall.”
Shannon also gives 4 wonderful examples of external vs internal for conflict and goals. These help sum up the difference between internal and external conflict/goals:
External Goal: Heroine wants to find her father’s killer.
External Conflict: Killer doesn’t want to be found.
Internal Goal: Even if it’s just proving to herself, she wants to achieve something important.
Internal Conflict: She’s doesn’t feel good enough, smart enough, committed enough, to succeed.
These four things are going to be what you’ll be using to flesh out your characters. You could fill out sheets upon sheets of likes and dislikes etc., but ultimately all these traits depend on your character’s internal and external conflicts and goals.
Section 2: External Goals
Pull out your worksheet from last week or personal notes and take a look at your main conflict. Take the example of “the atmosphere starts to burn up, forcing people underground”. How does your character fit into this? If they’re a civilian their main goal will likely be “get underground to safety”. If they’re a soldier it might be “get civilians safely underground”. If they’re the president it might be “stop nation from collapsing into anarchy”. You get the idea. List this as the first bullet point.
Now what are the sub-conflicts? Also known as the “and then” factors. These are the smaller conflicts that detour your characters from overcoming the main conflict right away. In this example, I have separated the main conflict from the sub-conflicts:
Jimmy and his family are living La Di Do Da Day in a farm near Nashville when they see the atmosphere burning up, they decide to go underground to escape the heat of the sun
- And then someone steals their car and food so they have to find a new vehicle
- And then they find a vehicle but it’s busted
- And then they meet a family with a working car but there isn’t enough food for all of them
- And then Pa starts to eat his own leg
For each of these sub-conflicts, the character may have a resulting goal that appears as a result. Main characters will likely have a new goal for each of the sub-conflicts you list, while minor characters may not be involved in all of these, and will therefore have less. Think about how your character fits into these sub-conflicts and list the relevant resulting goals for them.
These goals are not static. As you continue writing these goals may need to be changed. Currently, Jimmy’s main goal is to get his whole family underground, but if Ma and Pa both die along the way, this goal won’t be necessary anymore. In which case you would go to his character development sheet and cross out/delete that goal. What if Jimmy gets separated from his family but he’s too scared to look for them? He still wants them to get safely underground, but his main priority is to save himself. So those two goals may switch positions so “escape underground to safety” becomes his main goal.
Section 3: Internal Goals
To decide on your character’s internal goal I want you to consider this question: Why does your character want to achieve their main external goal?
In the case of Jimmy, he obviously wants to get to safety because he doesn’t want to die. Not wanting to die is always a great motivator, but it’s not very interesting is it? This is fiction, a fear of death isn’t enough. For internal conflicts we want to get to the root of the character’s desires and what drives them to action. What keeps them from just giving up on their goals? So why does Jimmy want to get underground? Here are some options to help you think of your character’s internal goal(s):
- he wants to achieve the feeling of belonging in his family
- he wants to feel like he’s doing something that matters or makes a difference
- he wants to feel like he matters, and that he’ll be wanted/necessary
You may find that your internal goals often ride on some common human desire. Wanting to be liked, or feel important, or belong, etc. etc. Think of your own desires for inspiration, what makes you keep going?
Section 4: Internal Conflict(s)
Take a look at your character’s internal goal and think of what’s stopping the character from completing that goal. At first your thoughts might go the external conflict. Poor Jimmy can’t feel a sense of belonging because he has to leave his home. And while this is a good reason, it is also external. We’re looking at internal conflict. You want to examine why your character can’t achieve their internal goal from an internal perspective. Let’s read this short (like really short) story:
You’re a kid and for Christmas you beg and beg for this one toy, and your parents bring you the wrong toy. They probably don’t even care what they get you. You NEED to get that toy so you sneak out that night and go on an epic adventure to find the toy. Eventually your parents find you and bring you home. They’re so happy to see you they’re crying all over themselves. The next day they get you the right toy and you’re happy.
Take a minute and try and think of what the external and internal goal(s) and conflict(s) are………………….. Did you do it? It’s okay if you just stared at the screen, I can’t tell so I can’t judge you.
What’s the external conflict and external goal here? Easy. The conflict is that you got the wrong toy. Getting the wrong toy drives you to correct the situation so you can get the right toy, which is, you guessed it, the external goal.
What about the internal goal? For the first one, based on the line “They probably don’t even care what they get you” it could be that want your parents to show they care about you. It could also be that you want your parents to pay more attention to you and express their affection more.
How about that internal conflict? What’s stopping you from feeling that your parents love and care about you? This could also be a number of things: maybe you were adopted and think that parents generally love adopted children less, or maybe you don’t think you’re deserving of love because you’re disfigured somehow, maybe you had cruel parents before who pretended to love you, but then said bad things about you behind your back so you don’t believe your new parents are sincere, etc. etc. I could go on all day. Whichever internal conflict it is when your parents come looking for you and cry because they were so worried, you realize that they do, in fact, love you. Not every story needs to resolve the internal conflict, but it should be addressed. Succeed or fail, both will make your readers feel something. External conflict only, while interesting, isn’t going to make anyone feel anything about your characters.
So, take a look at your internal goal and write down some internal conflicts to go with it. Major characters will likely have a couple of internal conflicts weighing them down while minor characters may only have 1.
Section 5: Quirks, Habits and More
This is a little section for you add small notes about each character. These might be quirks, habits, personality traits, or notes about their interaction with other characters. But! The rule is that anything you write here MUST be related to their internal goals and/or conflict. Please please please don’t just put in a quirk where a character chews gum all the time just for the sake of it. There’s no point to it, and it’s more likely to distract readers than anything else.
Here is Jimmy’s internal goal and conflict:
Jimmy’s feelings that his family don’t actually love him therefore prevent him from feeling the sense of belonging that people tend to feel with their family.
For each bullet point I put in this section, I also record how this trait relates to the internal conflict and/or goal.
- Rude to parents – feels his parents are pretending to love him, so he is rude in order to push their buttons and provoke them into revealing the charade
- Self-sacrificing – doesn’t think his truly loves him so he’s reckless with his life
- Charming to strangers – feels that he needs to earn the love of strangers so he is incredibly accommodating to them
- Tends to spy on parents – feels his parents are obligated to love him, so he spies to catch them saying bad things about him, therefore confirming that they don’t “really” love him
- Doesn’t trust people – if his parents lie to him, why shouldn’t everyone else?
Do the same for your character. Take a look at their internal conflict(s) and goal(s) and make a list of 3 – 5 traits, making sure to explain how this trait relates to the conflict and/or goal. Look over your list, and then back to your conflicts. Is there anything that seems off or doesn’t quite fit with the conflict?
For me, the self-sacrificing trait doesn’t fit for Jimmy. It makes sense given the internal conflict, but it doesn’t make sense given the internal goal. If Jimmy wants to feel like he belongs, he’s certainly not going to achieve that by constantly jumping in front of bullets. If his goal was to feel like he made a difference, then it would make more sense. After all, what makes a bigger impression than taking a bullet for someone? What about not trusting people? Can he be charming to strangers and still not trust them? Absolutely! He’s charming because he feels he needs to earn their love, but maybe once he gets it, he still doesn’t believe it’s genuine.
The explanation of the points is necessary to help you keep track of why that trait in in place. If Jimmy overhears his parents talking about how much they hate him, not only will he stop spying on them, he might stop being rude to them. He might even decide to be extra nice to try and earn their love.
Section 6: Notes
This section is for what it says. This is a “just in case” section, where you can make note of things not related to conflict or goals like: character appearance, hometown, love interest’s name, etc. etc.
Returning to Names
Andddd we’re back to Names. Did you forget about this? I did a little bit… I won’t lie. But if you followed my advice you now have a full character development sheet but no name. Now that you have everything filled out, take a look at the name you have there. Does it fit? if Yes, then away with you to the next section. If not, then now is the time to decide.
Take Jimmy. Does Jimmy sound like the name of a guy rude to his parents, distrusting, charming, and looking to belong? Ehhh, not really. I don’t know if I could be charmed by a Jimmy, sorry Jimmys of the world. But what about a guy named James, his parents call him Jimmy, and he goes by a name he picked out—Nate—to distance himself from the family he believes are lying to him? I like it!
Character Development Sheet UpKeep
It’s important to continue to keep track of internal and external conflict(s), and goal sections to have consistent characters. If you add a new sub-conflict, come back to the character development sheet and change the character goals appropriately. If you add a new character, write up a sheet for them. It’s fine if it’s just a few points at first, if they become more important later on you can add to their sheet.