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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