Character checklists can help you keep track of the people in your novel. Using character checklists gives you a systematic way to explore the wants, needs, and personality traits of all your people, not just the ones onstage at the moment.
In the prewriting stage, I use the questionnaire below to help me get to know my characters. I put the responses in a binder and add to them as I write my way to the end.
Let me also stress that it’s also important to know the motivations, backgrounds, and goals of the secondary characters. You’ll also need to understand the psychology and goals of the villain.
Character checklists can help you stay consistent throughout the writing of the book. You’ll understand your characters’ goals, dreams, self-doubts, and speech patterns, and you’ll be able to “see” them.
I’ve saved this web pages as Word document so that you can type in your responses. To get the Word document, click here.
Character Checklists and Identifying Info
- What is this person’s name?
- How old is s/he, and what does s/he look like? How does s/he feel about her/his age and appearance?
- Can you find a visual image of your character in a magazine, history book, or social media site? (Put that in your binder, too.)
- What is the character’s birthday and astrological sign? How does s/he feel if someone forgets a birthday?
- Where does the character stand in the family’s birth order?
- Are the character’s parents alive or dead? How about siblings, grandparents, godparents, aunts and uncles?
- What are their names? Is the person named for someone else?
- Does this person’s name have a meaning? Who came up with the name? Does the person have a nickname?
- What is the character’s ethnicity, race, and native language?
Tags, Mannerisms, and Worlds
- What would a stranger, meeting this character for the first time, notice about him/her?
- What special mannerism, habit, interest, or other personal trait could serve as a “character tag” for this character?
- Did your character grow up poor, wealthy, or in between?
- Does your person live in the real world or an imaginary world?
- Does your character live in present time, the future, or the past?
- What is the character’s vocabulary? Do certain words or phrases crop up in the character’s speech?
- Let your imaginary person answer this question: If I could live at any time in the past or future, when would it be?
- How does he feel about where s/he lives, her/his occupation (whether work, school, housekeeping, etc.) and where s/he’s going in life?
Psychology and Character Checklists
- What important childhood experience still affects her/him now?
- What traumatic event from the past still haunts him? Can you imagine an event or wound that s/he will have to heal in order to have the kind of life s/he wants?
- What do the character’s friends or family like about him/her most?
- Does this person have a particular strength in their personality? What is the greatest weakness? You might want to explore concept of Enneagrams in order to learn more about your character. Go here for an Enneagram worksheet.)
- Who is important in the person’s life right now?
- What object or pet would it kill this person to lose?
- What is the person’s job, skill set, or role in life? (student, computer geek, caregiver, baker)
- When the character meets a problem or difficulty, how does s/he react?
- What kinds of problems does this person tend to run into?
- What does he do too much of? Too little of?
- What physical activities are hard or easy?
- Has success come easily? Is your character proud of his or her success?
- What failure(s) would s/he be most embarrassed to have people know about?
- Is there any part of her or his body he would never let anyone see?
- How does the person typically handle money and/or debt?
- How did s/he spend the week just before the point where the story will begin?
- Is the character a person who strives to become a better person, or does s/he think the world should change?
- What would s/he like to change about himself or his life if he could? If he really made that change, would he be as happy as he thinks he would? Why or why not?
Character Checklists and Goals/Needs
- What is it the character wants at the beginning of the story? What’s at stake if s/he doesn’t get it? There should be an inner want and an outer one. For example, “she wants to be an astronaut” is the outer one. The inner want is “she wants to be treated as an equal and not limited by her gender.”
- What is his misconception about himself and the world around him that stops him from having what he wants?
- What’s her plan to get what she wants and how does it fail, and the more she tries, the more it fails?
- Is there an Enemy or a Force (such as Fate or War) that seems perfect for blocking and frustrating the character? Can you make that person or force truly powerful so that your protagonist must fight like crazy to reach the goal?
- What happens near the end of the novel (3/4 of the way) when the goal seems out of your protagonist’s reach? At that turning point your character confronts death or a dragon or some dire event that causes a total defeat and a dark night of the soul. Then something happens or she realizes she can’t get WHAT SHE WANTED all along. She gives up on the old goal and realizes that, with struggle, she can get what she NEEDS. At that point there’s a payoff for the character. (Think about GONE WITH THE WIND and Scarlett O’Hara’s desire to win Ashley’s love vs. what happens at the end. She gets what she needs, which is Tara–her land and plantation.)
- At the end of your book, can you imagine a new equilibrium, where the character acts differently? She now knows what she needs, which should be almost the opposite of what she thought she wanted in the beginning. (Think about GONE WITH THE WIND and Scarlett’s illusion-driven notions about romance vs. the practical gumption she demonstrates at the end.)
- What else is important in understanding who the character is?
Additional Questions for Enemies, Friends, and “Frenemies”
- If your character is the Enemy, what makes this struggle a life-or-death battle? Why must s/he win?
- Does your Enemy change tactics?
- Is your character a friend or “frenemy?” Does the relationship to the protagonist change as the story progresses?
- What is the balance between the character’s own goals and desires and those of the protagonist? How far will s/he go to help the protagonist?