Friday, April 3, 2020

Capturing Your Character’s Character

by Trevor Atkins, historical fiction & children’s book author

After I posted a screenshot of the character sheet template I use to a Facebook writers group, editor and author Jodie Renner asked if I might provide a bit of my thinking behind using this tool. This article is the result. 

When developing the major characters of my stories, I can’t help but draw upon my experience both playing and running tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs). In such games, character creation is extremely important to the game. The players are the main characters in the collaborative story they will be experiencing together. Even when first coming up with their characters, they are already adding them into the narrative.

  • Who are they?
  • What do they want?
  • Where do they come from?
  • When did they become the type of person they are today?
  • How do they mesh with the world around them?
  • Why are they here now?
This is a lot of information. Much of it, especially the technical aspects, is put into the character sheet template for whatever game we might be playing.

I use a similar approach for the characters in my stories. What follows is a description of how we can explore, decide, and capture a character’s character for a work of fiction in this way.

The Whole Iceberg

Premise: A reader wants a story that progresses believably with interesting and relateable characters. For that we need depth.

We might not want to detail a character’s whole life, their relationships, and all their decisions and goals in our actual story, but we need that insight to best understand how they will interact.

“What’s my motivation in this scene?”

To create a story, or to even write a scene in a story, we need to know our characters. We need to hear them talking, to see their body language, to know when they would tackle a problem and when they would run from it. We need to know:

  • What they look like, sound like, and act like
  • Why they are different from all the others (of the same archetype/stereotype)
  • Where they are from, and where they are going
  • How they change during the course of the story (and why)

As we generate this information, we will start to feel the need to organize it, to categorize it, to make it easy to reference. This is where our character sheet template comes in.

Using a Character Sheet Template

For each of our characters, we can complete a character sheet template in order to capture our understanding of them as a whole entity.

But first, it’s important to recognize that the template is just a tool to get us started. It’s not a rigid recipe or a set process. It’s not an automatic or automated solution. It’s a set of prompts that helps us define what we need to know about our character and a place to capture those ideas.

And a great thing about using a template as a tool is that we’re able to customize it to our preferences and needs. We shouldn’t complete a “found” template in its original form. We should feel free to re-label, remove, add, etc. as we feel necessary to make it our own.

In that vein, instead of just providing a template that you might find awkward, incomplete, or too complete, here’s an outline of the big categories and some sub-bullets you might want to address. And then you can make your own. 

External Description – How do others see them?

This part of character creation can be very mechanical. This is where we decide how our character presents themselves outwardly.

  • How they look – hair, eyes, build, distinguishing marks, clothing, etc.
  • How they talk – tone, formality, vocabulary, accent, swearing, catch-phrase(s)
  • How they act – attitude, mannerisms, habits
  • What makes them special – skills, abilities, knowledge, experience
  • What notable possessions do they have – weapons, tools, accessories, money (or access to), any special items (eg: ring with family seal). Note: They may or may not have these items on their person at all times. They may find them in the course of the story (perhaps after losing them at some point in their backstory).

From this information, we can also distill the one-line introduction for the character.

Internal Description – What are they thinking?

This part of character creation is very introspective. Here we decide how our character thinks and feels on the inside.

  • Reactions/feelings – how they feel/behave when presented/confronted with A, B, or C
  • Values/beliefs – how they make choices/decisions, moral compass
  • Psychology – personality type/traits, likes/dislikes, fears/desires, mental health, sense of humour
  • Relationships – feelings for others, established or blossoming
  • Goals/motivations – why they act the way they do

As we put together the above details, we will find ourselves thinking “they wouldn’t do that” for X, or “that’s *so* how they would react” to Y.

Why, it’s Backstory Time

The last part of character creation is the development of the character’s backstory. This is the “why” of our character. When combined with the above, this information is what will ultimately make our poor woodcutter (friendly witch, staunch sea captain, enigmatic gunfighter, [insert-your-archetype]) unique and compelling to write about.

  • Early years – where the character came from, family members/situation, what shaped or influenced the character’s beliefs and values
  • Recent past – what/who has influenced them to be where they are now, what are their immediate goals

This information will help flesh out our setting, identify additional characters and events, and enrich our story with plot threads.

How Much is Too Much?

“I want to write the story, not fill out all these character sheets!”

I hear you! In this article, I am sharing what information I would include when fleshing out a major character in a lengthier story. We don’t need all this information for every character. For shorter stories or lesser characters (shapers, influencers, supporting characters, and encounter characters), I even use a different version of the template with scaled-down the scope and detail. So how much is needed depends on you and what you are writing.

At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that each character is the main character in their own story. We might not be telling that story, but minor characters should still interact with, affect, shape, and influence others as real people. Knowing some details about them can help us make those interactions feel more authentic.

It is also important to note that a character sheet is not just completed at the beginning of our writing effort and then set aside to only be referenced occasionally.

What character springs to our mind fully formed and flush with details? We will capture what we can at the beginning. Then, as our writing progresses, we will learn more about them as choices are made, information is traded, relationships change, etc. – inspiring ideas in us which might become critical to our plot or serve to give it colour.

In summary: A character sheet is a great place to keep track of all these thoughts as our characters grow and evolve through our writing, especially if we feel a series coming on! 

About Trevor Atkins

With the help and inspiration of his daughter, Trevor is currently writing stories and designing/publishing educational tabletop and card games with a strong STEM component for elementary and middle-grade children.

Check out their children's comedy adventure "The King and Queen's Banquet: A Play in Three Acts" in softcover and e-book on, "The Bone Game" a card game that teaches the bones of the human skeleton on, and a number of free print-and-play math-centric games available through

Also, visit and subscribe for news about Trevor’s upcoming ‘pirate-y’ historical fiction that tells the tale of a young girl as she learns the ways of the sea, bonds with her fellow shipmates, and then has to save everyone from a cursed pirate treasure!

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