The Once-Maligned Character Template

In my college Creative Writing class, we were given a template to complete before we started writing our stories. It was basically a fact sheet – things I needed to know about my character before I wrote my first word. I thought it was the most ridiculous thing ever.

I wanted to write my story – I wanted to get on with it! Why did I need to know (and remember) mundane stuff like hair color, favorite foods, best friends, birthdays, or study habits? My readers didn’t need to know about Emma’s hobbies, weird relatives, or Laura’s fear of spiders. I may not even use that stuff. What I considered a complete waste of time turned out to be a vital part of how my characters come to life, how they interact with each other, and how I keep my story believable.

I don’t have that template anymore, but I do have a fact sheet where character traits, historical data, and timelines are listed. I’ll admit, the sheet wasn’t fully complete before I started, but the basics were there. And, as I added a family member tidbit or a dedication date, it was added to the fact sheet. Believe me, it’s much easier to look at the fact sheet than to scroll through endless pages of text because you can’t remember how you worded something to use the “find and replace” function in Word. If that’s not enough to take you out of your story-writing groove, I don’t know what is.

What is most important to me about creating a fact sheet is that it’s a process that enables me to get to know my characters. They become more three-dimensional, more flesh-and-blood, more real. If eleven-year-old Laura hates spiders, I know how she’s going to react when I swing one in front of her face. I know when Moz Hollow was built and I know the Swahili word for “bridge.” It has to be right, and it has to make sense. To me, and ultimately, the reader.

Knowing these “bits and bobs” about my characters helps me get into their heads and figure out what they’d say, how they’ll react, and how they feel when a certain situation arises. What will they do in the face of danger? Will they apologize when they realize they were wrong and hurt someone’s feelings? Do they cry easily or hold it all inside? Stiff upper lip, if you will.

Dates and facts need to be logical and accurate. I can’t have someone moving into a house before it’s built, or attending a society gathering after their death. Readers are savvy. You can bet they’ll be checking online to see if moose droppings actually look like chocolate-covered almonds (they do, by the way, depending on what they’re eating at a certain time of year).

My fact sheet expands as the adventures at Moz Hollow continue from one book to an eventual three-book series. The basic foundation remains intact, but newly-discovered traits, tics, and quirks will be added to give my characters even more dimension as they journey their way through the story. I’m glad I changed my mind about that template. It’s the best thing that ever happened to this writer.



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