Develop Characters Without Worksheets

worksheetsI think I’ve mentioned once or twice before how much I detest character worksheets. Again, if they work for you–that’s awesome. To me? They just encourage me to find random details to fill in a spot on the worksheet. But I won’t rewrite that post.

The thing is, though, we do have to get to know our characters. Kristen Lamb tells us that not getting to know your character before writing will lead to a “fish head.”

“… the writer who takes off writing without knowing her characters needs roughly a hundred pages to figure them out. The first hundred pages of first-time novels (98% of the time) are something that can be chopped off and thrown away…ergo the term fish head.”

I spent the last two days at a training.  I was in a class for 8 hours, watching videos and slides.  Gives one time to think.  And then, alone in my hotel.  Do you know how lonely a hotel is when you live with a husband, two kids, and two dogs?  Really. Lonely.  So, I wrote.

I wanted to work on GMC for my secondary characters.  I’d already written maybe fifty pages of info and backstory on my main characters.  But, I couldn’t figure out what my secondary characters wanted.  Why did my villain steal?  From charity money to build a facility for children?  I read somewhere, and strongly believe, a character can do anything as long as they have good and truthful motivation.  This was a big deal to me.  And I had five secondary characters to do this with.  They mattered.  They needed their own stories, at least in their minds.  Yeah, I know, that sounds weird.

I realized, I wasn’t going to know what they wanted, or why they wanted it, until I knew more about them.  Their family, the way they grew up, the high points and low points.  The success and the failures.  And, in writing a short biography (4-5 pages) for each character, the floodgates opened and my story climbed to a new level.

Never written a character bio?  Some suggestions on what to include:

  1. Physiological –height, weigth, age, sex, body colors (eye, hair, skin), age, sex, race, health, gear, clothing style. Pretty or ugly, short or tall, fat or skinny, etc. Identifying features.
  2. Sociological –social class, where they grew up, type of school they attended, groups they were a part of, how they interact with people, childhood, parents’ attitudes. Lots of friends or few friends, introverted or extroverted, assertive or passive. Past experiences that have affected them. Write their resume.
  3. Psychological–fears, guilts, longings, aptitudes, reasoning, special abilities, talents, habits, irritability, sensibility, (possibly) mental illnesses, beliefs.

From Character Bio’s: Why and How on The Writing Tools.

Image used with permission through

EDIT 08.24.2011: I know I said that was good advice on doing a character bio–and it is. Especially if you’ve never written one, long hand. Or unstructured, maybe. But it’s not quite how I do mine. So, next week, I’ll post one of mine that I wrote this week and dissect how I started, what I went looking for, and how I capitalized on what I found to create a GMC chart.

Character Development Series

Turns out, I had so much to say about developing characters, I wrote a series of posts. Here they are, in order:
Develop Characters Without Worksheets
Writing Free Form Character Biographies
How to Find a Character’s GMC?
My GMC “In the Wild”
Plotting and Motivation


  1. This was very helpful! Thank you.

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