by Angela Ackerman
Let me ask a question: how much time do you spend crafting a character for your novel, say a protagonist? Ten hours? Twenty? Fifty or more?
Whatever you answered, I bet we all agree that characters require a lot of work. Who they are in the story, what they want and need, what they fear, and how they will go about dealing with the challenges on the road ahead…these are not “surface” questions. Only by digging into the layers of a character’s mindset, personality, and backstory can we truly understand what matters most to them, drives them, and what will steer their behavior in the story.
The payoff is huge, though…writing them becomes so much easier! Every action, choice, and decision will logically flow from the information we’ve uncovered. Better yet, because we’ve worked so hard to create a character who experiences emotions, struggles, and inner doubt just as we ourselves do, readers will connect deeply to them and what they’re going through.
With infinite options for building characters and no right or wrong way, writers should experiment to discover what works best for them. For example, some find that using dozens of worksheets help them compile the information they need. Others may want to try a lengthy questionnaire or interview to pull out their character’s most intimate secrets. And anyone in the “Pantsers” category may forgo exhaustive pre-planning in favor of writing a discovery draft. Then, in subsequent iterations, they can revise to make their character’s behavior consistent, and go back to seed backstory elements as needed.
Honestly, I’ve tried everything at one point or another. My go-to method eventually became a notebook I would load with information as it occurred to me over the course of several weeks where I planned my character’s personality, emotional wounds, triggers, history, special qualities, skills, and more. But it was an arduous process…which told me I still needed to experiment.
This was part of the reason why Becca and I began building databases of information called thesauruses. We knew it would shorten the brainstorming curve.
This thesaurus collection has helped us (and others) plan deeper characters faster, but still, something was missing. We decided to experiment more at One Stop for Writers, a site we created a few years ago with Lee Powell, the creator of Scrivener for Windows and Linux. It contains our entire thesaurus database (14 subjects and growing) and many other custom storytelling tools.
Now, 18 months later, we’ve released the Character Builder, a hyper-intelligent tool that draws data from our description thesauruses, Idea Generator, and a boatload of insightful, behavior-based lists.
The character builder tackles all aspects of a strong character: Backstory, Personality, Motivation, Daily Life, etc. and allows writers to start their character planning wherever they would like.
If you are the sort of writer who gets a clear image of their character’s appearance, you can start there. Or if you know your hero is skilled with a bow, likes to collect haunted objects, or has a secret that he doesn’t want anyone to know, you can start with those elements, too. I often will know a character’s backstory wound, or what their goal (outer motivation) will be in the story, so that’s where I start.
Wherever you begin, the Character Builder will assist you by offering you specific detail you may wish to add, helping you to uncover more about the character. It’s able to do this because the tool is integrated with all the character-building information Becca and I have amassed over the last 10 years or so.
Because the tool is always offering you specific options and ideas, it’s a bit like having a psychologist on staff who encourages you to go deeper to explore who your character is and WHY they behave the way they do. Then, the Character Builder collects key information that you’ve added and sends it to other areas of the profile so you can see how everything about your character is interconnected. One way it does this is by creating a Character Arc Blueprint that maps the character’s inner journey.
I don’t know about you, but for me, figuring out my character’s inner motivation is always the hardest piece of the puzzle. So, we gave this smart tool the ability to connect all the dots for us: the difficulties in the character’s past that have held them back or led to unhappiness, the goal that can give the character the fulfillment they seek, what’s at stake, and why the character is determined to achieve this goal at all costs. The blueprint even explains how the character’s Fatal Flaw will be their own biggest internal obstacle, and if not defeated, will cause the character to fail in the story.
Once you’ve completed a character profile, you can save it, print it, or even export it to Scrivener. Here’s a PDF for our test character, Paul Graham.
The Character Builder is really helping me to understand my characters more deeply, meaning I can start drafting (my favorite part!) more quickly. If you think this tool might also help you, I hope you’ll check it out. To see it in action, Becca has created a walkthrough video below.
What is your process for creating a character, or are you still experimenting? Let me know in the comments!
If you’d like to give the Character Builder a spin, visit this link first so we can save you some money in the process.
Happy writing, everyone!
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Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression (now a expanded 2nd edition) as well as six others. Her books are available in six languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop for Writers, an innovative online library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.
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Wow, Angela! That's a cool new tool! I just discovered mind-mapping for characters/plotting this past weekend, and I'm in love with it!
Thanks, Laura! We are so excited to work with such a talented developer team at One Stop. We love making books, but we have ideas on how to help Writers beyond books, and it is terrific to be able to explore them at this site.
As always, I love ya'll's stuff! I've learned the hard way, writing 7 books, and keeping up with random and scattered notes... What I have now is not as sophisticated as yours, but I've created a spreadsheet with details on each character, and add to it as I get to know them. I'm a pantzer, and don't usually know my characters till they "introduce" themselves!!
Thanks for another great post and great tool for writers!
That’s great, Robin. I think it is good that we evolve our process until we find something that works well. The less time we spend tracking down and organizing the info we need means more time for writing ?
I'm a pantser, so I have an idea in my head, but I do keep notes and jot down things to keep consistent and to use as a reference. I saw a really cool way of creating a character on a worksheet, but it would have required buying a whole system I didn't need, so I'll stick to what I have.
Yes, stick to what works! What I like about the tool above is it works for both panthers and plotters. Writers can fill it in as they write, so by the second draft, all their character information is in place, or they can do it in advance. I used to pants exclusively, and I still do a bit of it. ?
Wow! This is an awesome, must have resource.
Thanks, Nickie! I hope it s exactly what you need 🙂
I am so flipping excited about this tool, Angela!! I haven't found anything else that really worked. Spreadsheets are too time consuming and not dynamic enough and when I use paper, I lose the damn paper! So, something like this that is already built for me (and held in the cloud for when it need it) sounds perfect. THANK YOU.
I hope you love it, Jenny! The nice thing is if you use Scrivener you can export the character’s to that program.
Yes! I'm so excited to use this. I've also tried spreadsheets and pieces of paper. I'll gladly give that up for this new tool!
I hope you find it helpful, Laurie! Thanks for giving it a try. Let me know how it goes!
That sounds fantastic. I have to admit, I hate doing character development and I really struggle with internal motivation - I don't always know why I do the things I do, let alone my characters 😉
Haha, right? Sometimes I think our character’s have it a bit easier. Someone is always mapping out what they will do and where they will go, but us? We’re on our own. Lol.
I love, love, love One Stop for Writers! The tools are amazing, and I'm thrilled you added yet another that will both simply and deepen my storytelling. Thank you!
Thank you, Julie! And a double thank you for beta testing this tool! YOu helped us work out a lot of kinks and we sure appreciate it!
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I guess I'm fortunate. I trust my characters. After all, it's their story, not mine. I just write the story and let the characters reveal who they are as it unfolds. Thus far it's worked through 40 novels and almost 200 short stories. Different strokes, I guess.
Discovery drafts can be a powerful way to get to know your character, so if this process wirks for you, keep at it. 🙂
Hi Angela, Can I have your permission to repost this in our writer's group?
Oh please do—I’d be honored!
It was great to meet up with you in Adelaide, a couple of years back, and thanks for the opportunity.
I find my additional notes (pantser) as I career down my unknown but compelling path, end up being the block where I screech to a halt - so much to go through - again, work out where best it might fit - again, etc etc...
I'm keen to look at your Character Builder - it might just be what I need.
Hi Wendy! I loved Australia and it was so wonderful to meet everyone back in 2015–I would love to come back again. I miss you guys!
I know I used to pants much more than I plotted, and it meant writing a lot of drafts to really get to the “meat snd potatoes” of writing character actions that came from a deep well of past experiences that made them who they are. Once I started exploring who my character’s were in advance, everything changed. I think that is one think I love about this tool—I can explore the character on a deeper level to understand their backstory and how it impacts motivation, and still leave room for plotting the story if I want to pants some of what will happen.
Knowing why your character behaves as they do and how their past impacts their present and the goals they are motivated to reach...this is the key to a compelling story. It’s like having the master ledgend to a map that only you can see and read 🙂
Thanks Angela and you must come again. The Character Builder looks great. No, IS great! Just slotted one of my rough stories in and some almost hidden aspects, veritable gems I'd almost forgotten about, are peeking through again.
I love that there is somewhere to put Backstory, add to it, twist it a bit, and it stays there - but (pantser) it affects where the story goes - and is much easier to refer to than a box full of handwritten notes in no particular order.
I am so glad that you're finding the Character Builder helpful, Wendy! As a former pantser, I like the fact that it works for people who plan upfront and those who plan as they go. For pantsers, all the details that a writer learns about their character as they write can be added to the profile, and once the discovery draft is complete, all the information is there so that in subsequent revision, all those details can be woven in from the start and built up on throughout the story.
Happy writing (& character planning!)