writing tip 8 character sheets graphic

Howdy! Today we’re looking at a tool that has helped me immensely in the past – character sheets. Yes, like the ones you make in D&D campaigns. Sort of. Stick with me here – free stuff on the way!

Writing Tip #8 – Character Sheets

I love writing characters. By love, I mean I write stories about characters, not characters within stories. It’s very rare for me that the plot comes before the people that live through it.

Back in the early days of my writing, I wanted to find a way to develop the little things about those people better. Somehow (probably via Springhole), I discovered the all-powerful concept of character questionnaires.

I’m a strong believer that the best characters are the ones who have more aspects than even the writer can ever fully know. Those characters are the ones that seem like humans in their own right.

Like weird magazine interviews, making character sheets can help develop your characters into full fledged people.

Before you know it, you’ll have things to slip in about your characters that surprise even you. You can find out that your quiet middle-aged librarian is really into hockey and EDM. It happens.

Character sheets can also help you keep track of the little things. The stupid tiny details that you forget and make you want to scream. Like what the name of your character’s guinea pigs are. That isn’t something you want to forget.

My list is a combination of multiple different character questionnaires I found around the web. I edited the questions to serve my own purposes. Mostly, I made it easier and faster. Most rows can be filled with only a few words, but there’s lots of sections for creating a detailed portrait of your character.

If my suggestions don’t work for you, I recommend looking up other worksheets. Shorter versions (or longer) might work better for you.

As always, don’t take my word for law! Part of the magic of writing is finding out what works for you.

Start with the basics.

Just beginning? Write down the simple things – what your character might have on their IDs, what they fill out on application forms.

Name, nicknames, gender and pronouns, age (approximate is okay), birthday, height and weight, distinguishing physical features, if they wear glasses or contacts, what languages they speak or otherwise know, and if you want, the MBTI personality type that best describes your character.

These are basic things that you’ll want to keep consistent. Trust me, you don’t want to forget that yes, your character does wear dark glasses so no, you can’t write about what their eyes are up to.

True story.

Move onto the external.

What’s your character’s place in the world? Specifically, look at the relationships they have with other people.

Your character’s family, marital status, sexuality, significant others, pets, closest friend(s), other friends, enemies, other relationships, ethnicity and/or race, and religion are all good things to consider.

If you’re working on two or more characters, keep in mind that the relationships one character values might not be the same as the other person. Just because Person A considers Person B a close friend, Person B might not think of Person A that way.

Play around. Some of the best conflict in stories can come from knowing how your characters interact.

Get physical.

No, I don’t mean fight your characters (unless you want to). I mean dig into their physical presence. You’ve already covered how they look generally. Now you want to look at the other details, the kinds of things a good actor or con artist could change in an instant.

To start, figure out their what their diction (word choice) is like, how fast they talk, if they have any natural accents, and other speech patterns. Do they have any particular mannerisms (behaviors)? What’s their general demeanor like?

You can also look at how they groom themselves, what their usual physical posture is, what gestures they make often (including nervous tics), and what their handwriting looks like.

All of these details can make it easier for you to describe your character, and thus create a stronger image for your reader to imagine.

Work, home, and other fun things.

Find out your character’s education level and any degrees earned. What’s their job? Do they like it? Where have they worked in the past? What’s their financial situation?

Figure out where they live. That can be the country, the city, or right down to the street number, if that’s what you want. Are they an owner or renter? Do they live with anyone else?

What do their main living and working spaces look like? Are there any other places they spend a lot of time? How do they usually get to all these places (car, bus, horse and carriage, private helicopter, etc.)?

I have spent more time than was logical researching tiny details about Baltimore, MD to fill out this section for a set of characters. Don’t do that. Unless you really like figuring out bus routes. In which case. You do you. No judgement.

Likes and dislikes.

This is a fun one. And often quite challenging. Don’t let it fool you. Figuring out what characters like can get hard.

Like hobbies. Some people don’t even consider themselves to have hobbies. It’s your job to figure out what your characters do in their free time. Even if, as a friend of mine said, their hobby is just vibing.

What are their eating habits and food preferences? What’s their sleep schedule like? What kinds of books, music, TV, and other entertainment do they like? Any specific titles?

You’ll also want to think a little about how they dress. It can be as simple as what kind of shirts and pants they wear, or as detailed as a link to a Pinterest board. If there’s any special accessories that are important, like wedding rings or other mementos, make sure to make a note of that too.

Any quirks? I don’t love that word, because normality is both fake and overrated, but hey. We’ve all got those little things we do that most other humans don’t.

Become a doctor.

Not literally. Just a WebMD doctor, if you get really into it.

What’s the general health status of your character? Are they perfectly dandy, on death’s door, or somewhere in between? Any allergies, chronic conditions (including mental kinds), disabilities, or addictions? Do they take medications – or magic repressant potions? Your call.

If relevant, a detailed medical history might help you keep track of more complex backgrounds.

Just please, please, please, don’t define a character entirely by their mental/physical ability levels. Been there, done that, still mad at my younger self for thinking that was cool. People are complex. Your characters should be too.

Get inside their head.

Time for the fun part. Figure out what it’s like to be inside your character’s brain.

Ask about their fears and their secrets. Find out their general outlook on life and humanity/people, and how they approach both. I write a lot of surly-ass cynics with hearts of gold. Whee.

What makes them the most comfortable? Most uncomfortable? Their greatest wish, greatest fear, greatest strength, greatest weakness? What otherwise stresses them out?

Consider their political/ideological stance, both in relation to specific parties (if applicable) or general ideas. What would they think about welfare programs? Race and gender? Global trading? Go big or dig deep. Ask what they value. Find their prejudices, fair or not. You don’t have to like everything about your character.

That said, other characters won’t love everything about any given person, either. Investigate what other characters think about your character. Discover what your character thinks about themself. Any conflict between the two? Capitalize on it.

I’m fascinated by asking my characters how they feel about free will and fate. It’s rarely a simple answer, but it can define many of their actions and reactions. How does a believer in free will justify bad decisions? How do the faithful hold their faith after tragedy strikes?

If you want to get really deep, ask how your character themself would react to being asked about any of these things. What would they lie about? What do they want to believe about who they are?

Anything else?

If there’s anything else relevant to your character that you haven’t included, write it down!

Remember, character sheets are for your reference. Don’t skimp out. If you couldn’t find another place to detail the wild history of your character’s crocodile-wrestling adventures in Egypt, tack it on.

If you’re lost for plot points later on in your process, character sheets can help you find the little bits of conflict and humanity that make fresh ideas smash into your brain. Those weird hobbies you vaguely mentioned? Well, turns out the heist needs a badminton expert now. Those guinea pigs? Your character has a side gig photographing them for Instagram.

I dunno, man, it’s your character. Go with it. The better you know your character, the easier it is for them to tell you their story.

And isn’t that all we’re trying to do?

Make your own character sheets!

Free PDF file for your own use, based on the details outlined in this post! Just download and print!

Possum Paper Works Character Template

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Other writing tips can be found here.

Need a place to put your writing? Check out my line of notebooks on Etsy!

For your pinning pleasure:

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make a map graphic

Howdy! In this week’s writing rodeo, we’re looking at how to make a map (or floor plans) of your world’s central location, and how to use that map to inspire you!

Writing Tip #5 – Make a Map!

I love architecture. Seriously. In the past, I’ve spent hours and hours on building floor plans and 3D models of the buildings in my stories. I lose myself in the design of houses faster than in my actual writing. I’ve taken lots of time making accurate renditions of Victorian styles and floor plans, designing windows from scratch, and doing all other sorts of nonsense in the supposed name of writing.

But–making those houses and other places has done wonders for my ability to visualize the settings of my stories. I can vividly imagine the outsides and insides of the buildings my character live, work, and love in. And that makes my writing stronger.

floor plan and 3d model of the red sky inn
One of my recent works-in-progress, of a Colorado lodge. Some of the downstairs interior is still empty, but the lobby is full and very helpful in plotting character’s movements.

I work almost exclusively with floor plans and models like the ones above because that’s what I love doing. I don’t tend to design full geographical maps unless I feel lost in my own world. Most of my writing is set on modern Earth, though, so I usually don’t have to worry about what other planets look like.

You, on the other hand, might need to know where that old ice floe is on your world, or where to find the forest the elves hide out in as well as how to describe the layout of the mother-in-law’s split-level condo. That’s where maps come in!

Why you should make a map (or two or three)

Maps are fun! Okay, yes, as previously noted I have a bias towards thinking that. I’m a visual person, and I enjoy creating a collection of images for my stories, both in my mind and on my computer.

Maps can help you visualize the actions of your character,  because they give you directions and features that you can include in your writing and make your descriptions stronger.

Take a witty monologue delivered in a tavern before a brawl. Where’s your character standing? What can they grab and shake for emphasis? Where’s the bar, with its noisy clanking of glasses? How many people can fit into the room to laugh/fight with them? Where’s the table that they fight the villain on? That’s the sort of thing a nice floor plan or 3D model can show you.

Maps also can give you a solid reference point for locations (as in, do their job). That’s handy if you want to make sure you’re describing directions the same way twice. Don’t want to forget where that one geographical feature was? A map can make sure that mountain doesn’t move!

Helpful types of maps

Depending on the needs of the story you’re writing, a multitude of different kinds of maps could help you figure out your setting.

Some possibilities:

  • Map of the solar system
  • Map of the entire planet
  • Borders/features of the continent/land mass
  • Map of the town/city/rural hamlet/cave system
  • Plot of the property grounds
  • Floor plans of the building
  • Floor plans of a single room
  • Schematics of the spaceship

Some maps won’t make much sense for certain universes — a handmade map of the planet or continent probably won’t help if you set your story on modern Earth, but they’d help immensely in planning a sci-fi outer rim world or in plotting the contentious borders in a dystopian society.

Of course, you control what maps you make and the detail you put into each one. You can plot every tiny nook and cranny in your mountain, or draw a vague square and call it a house.

It can help to know a little about building design, but an internet search can provide quick basic designs if you don’t look at old floor-plan catalogs for fun. Like me. I do that.

Same goes for planets and such. No need to be a geologist. Just make something up!

There’s no rules here. Remember, it’s your story, your map. See what works for you and roll with it!

Ways to make maps

If you’re handy with pencil and paper, sketch that world out! I think this is pretty self-explanatory, really. Since it’s your map, it doesn’t matter if you “can’t ” draw. Random shapes and labels can provide all the reference material you need for yourself.

If you don’t like drawing, don’t worry. Tons of online generators exist so that you don’t have to rely on artistic skills.

Roll For Fantasy has a Town creator, a Map creator, a Blueprint creator, and dozens of other simple but useful tools. Donjon has similar tools that require little effort and give randomized results, if you need something fast and easy. Tiffany Munro made a huge list of free fantasy-based creators as well.

Interior design software can also help. Some free browser-based options: Planner5dHomeByMe, SweetHome3D, and Homestyler all have high praise. Design apps abound for your phones and tablets as well. The software I use, LiveInterior3D, I bought, only for the company to come out with a fresh rebranded software right after. Sigh.

a floor plan of a bar
An old design of a bar that provided a reference for a major setting of one story, made in LiveInterior3D.

Whatever you use, don’t stress about it. If making the map makes you feel overwhelmed, back off. Many stories will do just fine without you plotting the world graphically. Remember, it’s supposed to help, not hurt!

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Other writing tips can be found here.

Need a place to put your writing? Check out my line of notebooks on Etsy!

For your pinning pleasure:

writing tip make a map summary