People are always saying to me, "My God, J. Adrian, how the fuck do you get your characters so goddamn compelling?" Okay, that's a half-truth. Nobody asks me that, but my characters are very compelling. At least that's what my mom says. In any case, when you're preparing to write a long work of fiction, be it a screenplay, a novel, novella, RPG campaign or stage play, it's always a must to have your characters fully-fleshed before you attempt to tackle your plot.
Robert McKee, screenplay guru, says in his bestselling book "Story" that there is no difference between plot and character. He calls mannerisms, such as clicking one's fingers to light a lighter, always wearing black or habitually tossing a dead mouse into the air "characterization", rather than "character". He says that true character is revealed in the decisions your characters make and it is those decisions that drive the plot of your story, not gunfights and explosions. That sounds like good advice, so if character=plot, then you had better be damn-well sure that you know what those decisions are going to be.
When I sit down and consider my major characters (not walk-ons and stormtroopers), I like to flesh them using my bePatented Character Worksheet™. I'll be sharing it with you today, so if you don't care about the craft of writing, bugger off. Feel free to use it when you're thinking about your own characters. It may seem like a lot of work in the short term, but hell, you're a writer for God's sake, not a capitalist democracy! You can actually conceive of the idea of short-term work for long-term gain.
J. Adrian's bePatented Character Worksheet™ is divided into these sections:
4. Passions and Hates
5. Hopes and Fears
6. Talents and Advantages
9. The Vietnam Dilemmas
(a) 8-Ball is Down
(b) The Weekend Pass
(c) The POWs
As I describe each of these sections, I'll provide an example. This example will be completely pulled out of my ass and bears no resemblance to anything I am currently writing. Nor do I recommend anybody else try to tackle this character or plot: they're far too epic.
This starts with the character's name and gives a brief rundown of their personality, outward appearance and role in your story. Feel free to come back and edit this section over and over as you discover your character through this bePatented creation process.
Albie is the best fighter-pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, currently serving over France in 1917. He has a heroic countenance and looks absolutely dashing in his leather uniform. Aside from being a fighter ace, he is a gifted mechanic and talented horseman. He is a Canadian and devout Christian, and yet hides the fact that he is secretly gay. In order to triumph against the evil Viceroy Starglax and his Worm-people contagion, he will have to accept that he is not the best at everything and use the unholy biotechnology of the future police. He is my story's protagonist.
If you're designing a personality, it's probably a good idea to have some actual psychology behind it. This section is based on the theories of psychologist Theodore Million, who divides the personality into three areas, motivation, cognition and social behaviour. For example, motivations are based on three different dimensions, or scales, that measure what makes a person get up in the morning, detailed below. If one of my characters tends toward one side of the scale I note it. Here they are:
Enhancing vs. preserving (pleasure vs. pain): Enhancing people are optimistic and seek pleasure while Preserving people are pessimistic and seek to avoid painful experiences.
Modifying vs. Accommodating (active vs. passive): Modifying persons take an active role in changing their lives while Accommodating persons are content mold themselves to existing circumstances.
Individuating vs. Nurturing (self vs. other): Individuating people tend to further their own aims while Nurturing people consider community and the needs of others as more important goals.
Extroversing vs. Introversing: Extroversers look to other people for advice, stimulation and attention, while Introversers look within themselves for such things.
Sensing vs. Intuiting: Sensors believe in structure, concrete facts and their senses while Intuiters tend to focus on intangible things such as magic, personal insight and hunches.
Thinking vs. Feeling: Thinkers try to solve problems cooly and logically, downplaying emotions. Feelers concentrate on their own subjective experiences of events, using empathy and emotion to solve problems.
Systematizing vs. Innovating: Systematizing people evaluate new experiences based on their past experiences and make their realities conform to their present worldview. They like reliablity and consistency. Innovating people seek novelty and like change. They are flexable and spontaneous.
Asocial vs. Gregarious: Asocialites are quiet, passive and don't interact with others much, whereas Gregarious people can be colourful and charming, but often have low-attention spans and can be demanding or manipulative.
Hesitating vs. Confident: Hesitators are shy and timid in social situations, always worried that they will be rejected if they show too much of themselves. While they are emotionally responsive, they are also lonely and frustrated. Confident people think they're better than everybody else and thus have the cajones to assert themselves. Others can see them as arrogant or inconsiderate.
Conforming vs. Dissenting: Conformers follow the rules, respect and relate to authority and value societal standards. Dissenters defy traditions and can be seen as either reckless or enterprising.
Yielding vs. Controlling: Yielders are accustomed to life as martyrs, are self-demeaning and submissive. They often miss opportunites and fail to accept help. Controllers are dominant and aggressive. Compassion is weakness and a strong will is a sign of strength.
Complaining vs. Agreeing: Complainers are often dissatisfied, sullen or angry, often believing themselves to be misunderstood. Agreeing people try to be likeable and amenable, but often hide their own feelings if they disagree with others.
Example: The Personality of Captain Albie Hotchkiss
Enhancing, Modifying, Individuating. Albie is a go-getter, ready further his own reputation and have a good time doing it.
Introversing, (neither strongly Sensing nor Intuiting), (neither strongly Thinking nor Feeling), Innovating. Albie, being a mechanical genius, loves to tinker with his plane. His Sopwith Triplane must always be faster and more durable to withstand the strain he puts upon it in action. When he's tinkering or in battle, he relies on his senses and intellect, but he knows that sometimes, especially in crisis or experimentation, you have to follow a hunch.
Gregarious, Confident, Conforming, Controlling, Agreeing. Albie thrives as the centre of attention. His reputation as a pilot is just as important as his reputation as a proper Britisher. As such, he attends church regularly, is chivalric to women and hides his homosexuality.
This is the time to forge your character's history. What we're looking for here are the turning points and motivations as they grow up, from birth to present-day. The more detail you provide, the better. Actual dates and place names will provide more material to draw upon when you actually go to write your story, so don't spare anything. If your story is historical, make sure you do your research.
Here's an example. It's long, so if you don't care, skip over it.
Example: The History of Captain Albie Hotchkiss
Albert Theodore Hotchkiss was born on August 24th, 1892 to John and Dora Hotchkiss on a farm just outside Guelph, Ontario. As a young child he would spend every moment he was allowed rushing about the farmyard and chasing chickens, jumping off of fences and finding creative ways to hurt himself. The family farm was prosperous and as soon as he was able, his father purchased a pony for him. Albie was a natural in the saddle and as he grew, he would take every excuse possible to race his horses to town and back. It was in junior county horseraces he got his first taste of fame and he loved it.
Albie's first problem was that he was not born a girl. He was the third son and Dora had been hoping for a girl. Her disappointment leaked into her treatment of him. What's more, he required constant attention to keep him from seriously hurting himself. All this contributed to a nervous breakdown when Albie was six. John sent her back to Salford to stay with her family until she was better, but somehow she just never returned. Albie's constant attention-seeking in adulthood is the direct result of his mother's lack of affection.
Albie was good at everything he tried and always popular at school (though a poor student). In 1904 he was introduced to his second great passion when his father purchased an Oldsmobile, the first automobile in Guelph. Together, Albert and John learned how to take apart and re-assemble the automobile blindfolded. However, it was also at this age he began to notice he was not like other boys. He developed close relationships with his school chums and felt deeply attracted to them. Despite this, he showed affection to girls and was very popular with them, though his relationships with them didn't last long. He never pursued his crushes on his male-friends. If this made him sad in any way, he certainly never showed it in public, even to those closest to him.
After barely graduating from school, he split his time between working as a hand on his father's farm, tinkering with community automobiles in a part-time garage in Guelph and horseracing. As soon as it was humanly possible, he and his father set to work attempting to build their own airplanes. Over the course of five years they built a glider and three lavishly decorated airplanes which became hits at fairs all over southern Ontario. In 1912, Albie was engaged to Eliza Wendt of Waterloo, but destroyed the relationship by publicly courting another woman two months before the marriage (he also dumped her).
In 1914 Great Britain declared war on Germany and her allies and Albie camped all night in front of a Toronto recruiting office and was literally the first applicant. He joined the Toronto Regiment and was sent to England with the 1st Canadian Division. When the regiment was deployed to France, he was spared the hardships of the front line by acting as courier on horseback and motorcycle. Though he claims otherwise, he spent both battles of Ypres in Paris. It was in Paris, in fact, that he first indulged his sexual urges, meeting discretely with a male prostitute in a hotel.
After second Ypres, Albie was promoted to lieutenant (he was always popular with the brass) and immediately asked for a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps. He spent five infuriating months in an observation balloon at the end of 1915 but took every opportunity to fly that he could. In March of 1916 he was finally allowed to fly combat in a SPAD. To everybody's surprise, he shot down a Bosch plane on his first mission. It was the beginning of a marvellous career.
It is now Fall, 1917 and Albie has his own squadron. He has 46 air victories and is now a Captain and a celebrity at home and abroad. His wingman, Lt. Arch Bennett, has been a willing participant in Albie's glory, acting as bait for Bosch planes while Albie swoops out of cloudbanks and claims the victories. However, Albie has recently realized, much to his chagrin, that he is in love with ol' Arch. He's reasonably sure Arch feels the same way, but he dares not find out. A misstep could cost him his celebrity. He has a reputation as a fair-playing, God-fearing gentleman to uphold. Instead, Albie has been keeping him out of the fighting and Arch is furious.
When the damn war is over, he has a job waiting for him at Sopwith designing planes. But he's sure he won't take it. He'd rather be wowing a crowd than sitting behind a desk. Little does he know that his greatest trials lay ahead of him and that a mysterious plague from the future will destroy everything he holds dear.
Pretty awesome, huh? No? Fuck you then.
4. Passions and Hates
These are hot-button issues that will drive your character forward. If they are ever in a dilemma, and, as a writer, you are unsure of what they would do or say, keep these in mind: they will always follow a passion or avoid/attack a hate.
Example: The Passions and Hates of Captain Albie Hotchkiss
Albie's has four passions. The first, and foremost is thrill. He loves the rush of air, speed and the triumph of honest victory over a fairly-beaten foe. Second, he loves fame and the knowledge that he is the best. He will always show off whenever possible. Third, he loves Arch. This is a new sensation for him, because he has never been truly in love. His sense of fear over Arch's well-being is very distressing. Fourth, he loves to improve things, especially machines. He loves to dissect and assemble parts, think about aerodynamics and improve designs.
Albie has few hates in the world. He hasn't thought very hard about the validity of British war propeganda, so he assumes that all Germans are sneaky devils without consciences. He is also beginning to despise the affections of ladies. He has had too many failed relationships and is tired of pretending. Lastly, once the first act is complete, he will be filled with loathing for Viceroy Starglax and his army of worm-people.
This is, by far the most important section of your Character Worksheet. Hope and Fear are what make your audience identify with your character. With protagonists, it is especially important to be as clear as possible with hopes and fears and rarely conceal them. Once an audience knows a character's hope, they will hope with them, and once they know a character's fear, they will be frightened for them.
All major characters should have this section well-polished, even the bad-guys. Bad-guys without depth are just cartoons. Even Sauron, the ultimate faceless evil overlord from the Lord of the Rings, is well-defined in this area: Tolkien makes it clear exactly what Sauron wants and what he fears will happen throughout the books.
Example: The Hopes and Fears of Captain Albie Hotchkiss
Albie wants to be the best and stay the best using his own abilities, also being recognized by as many people as possible. He wishes to unload his feelings for his Wingman, Arch, and pursue his first honest love. However, once the plot gets rolling, his only hope is that he will live unscathed a hero and that there will be a world left to admire him.
He is terrified of the idea that his celebrity will vanish. He is not a nobody and he needs his attention. Death is not frightening in the least. However, once the worm-people contagion spreads, he will be terrified of losing his will and becoming another mindless servant of Starglax. However, he will also be terrified that by accepting the help of the time police and injecting himself with their biotechnology, he will lose everything that made him human and special.
6. Talents and Advantages
Did I say that Hopes and Fears were the most important part? I lied. This is just as important. Now that your character has a mechanism by which audiences will identify with him/her, you need a reason for them to WANT to identify. These reasons are basically anything that makes them "better" than the other characters. Mad skills, sharpness of wit, strength of body, moral conviction, and dedication are all common examples. Remember: "better" is a subjective term and some people may not agree with your reasons to like the character. It's best to give protagonists several reasons to like them to cover your angles.
A word on flaws: character flaws can be one of the best ways to make your characters "better" than other people. WTF? How's that, you say? Let's take alcoholism, for example. Not a very becoming character trait, right? The easiest way to turn this around is to have your character attempting very seriously to get off the sauce. Your audience will see this and say, "At least he's trying!" and as long as there isn't some other character attempting to kick alcoholism, he will be "better" than other people in some way. Or you could go the other way! Your character could be the best damn alcoholic in the world! He holds his drink well, he relaxes, he invites joy around him, or hell, maybe booze even gives him super powers! (remember Drunken Master?)
Example: The Talents and Advantages of Captain Albie Hotchkiss
Albie is an awesome pilot, a whiz mechanic, and a celebrity. He believes in fair-play and won't take advantage of a helpless enemy. His daredevil personality combines with an almost supernatural luck that helps him triumph against insane odds. What's not to like?
When will your character lie? To whom will they lie? When will they cheat to get ahead? When will they break the rules? Consider this as you are constructing your character. Lies and dishonesty are the backbone of any story as they create so much conflict. Plot is the love-juice of conflict.
Example: The Dishonesty of Captain Albie Hotchkiss
As discussed earlier, Albie lives the lie of a closeted homosexual. He is willing to make other people unhappy in order to maintain this lie, particularly women who are interested in him. He will also lie in order to protect the reputation of anybody with whom he has had a romantic relationship.
His military code is to never take advantage of a helpless enemy. However, that does not mean an armed but unaware enemy. He is not a bloody knight, for Gosh-sake!
Here's where you get a rough idea of how your character interacts with the other major characters, especially how this character views the other. Make notes on how you think the relationship will develop.
Example: The Relationships of Captain Albie Hotchkiss
*Arch Bennett: Arch is the only person Albie has ever loved, with his big square jaw and passion masked by thin stoicism. Albie has found himself unable to express his feelings and has been trying to find the right place or time to do so. He knows his feelings are interfering with their friendship and also their ability to deal with the Hun, but can do nothing else than try to keep him out of the fighting. Arch will die near the end of the story and Albie will go, "Noooooooo!"
*Carrie MacRorie: The senior nurse in the RFC's local field hospital, unfortunately in love with Albie. Albie has been "seen" in public with her for appearances' sake, but has kept her at arm's reach, despising the idea of another tearful female. However, he will soon have to learn to work with her as she will be the only medical professional left able to deal with the Worm-people contagion.
*Major Urdu of the Time Police: Urdu's first appearance, that of a bio-engineered monstrosity with slant-eyes, will put Albie off severely. They'll fight at first, but then Urdu will become a mentor figure. As such, he'll die just before the third act.
If character=plot, then dilemmas=plot points. Why not test your character with some dilemmas? Dilemmas that involve death are always the most interesting. With these exercises, you will imagine what would happen if your character was suddenly thrust, as they are now, into dilemmas set in the Nam. Don't worry about how they got there or any hardships they may have suffered in getting there, such as basic training or months in mosquito-infested bogs. Just imagine them dealing with these:
(a)8-Ball is Down (with apologies to Full Metal Jacket)
Your character is squad leader. 8-Ball goes out to scout, but is shot in the leg by a sniper. He's moaning in pain and the sniper is shooting him bit-by-bit in various limbs, trying to goad the squad into the open.
What does your character do? Do they attempt a rescue? Do they give up? How successful are they? Does 8-Ball survive? Do they get the sniper?
(b)The Weekend Pass
Rumour spreads throughout the barracks that there's going to be a major offensive on Monday. Things are looking bleak and the character is certain that they're going to die. But they have a weekend pass. How will they spend their last hours among the living?
How does he/she spend it? Do they seek pleasure or avoid pain? Do they spend it alone or with other people? Do they spend their time fretting or forgetting?
The spec-ops mission behind enemy lines is going well, but the squad has captured some prisoners. Sarge orders them killed. How does the character react?
This scenario tests your character's reaction to authority figures and atrocity. Do they refuse the order? Do they attack the Sarge? Do they freeze-up or weep uncontrollably? Do they shoot the prisoners? Or is this a chance to do something truly unspeakable?
Example: The Vietnam Dilemmas of Captain Albie Hotchkiss
(a)8-Ball is Down:
Albie orders the squad to sit tight while he distracts the sniper. He charges into the open firing a light machinegun, spraying bullets everywhere at random. When he reaches cover, miraculously, he isn't hurt. He locates the sniper nest and orders his squad to surround the building. He keeps the sniper occupied by rushing about and blazing away whenever he gets a chance. Soon the sniper is dead and Albie rescues 8-Ball. What a hero!
(b)The Weekend Pass:
This is it: the time to tell Arch how much he loves him. To his joy, Arch reciprocates the affection and the two spend a weekend of passion in a hotel.
Albie spends a minute in absolute moral outrage and arguing with the Sarge. Then, he suddenly goes quiet, smiles and says, "You take 'em back to base, Sarge. I'll complete the mission," and then blunders off into the jungle, leaving the squad speechless. After a few minutes of arguing, the squad hears sounds of shooting in the distance. Assuming Albie has blown the mission, they head back to base. The Sarge prepares his scathing report and is delivering it to the CO when a mud-spattered Albie bursts into the tent and roars, "Mission accomplished!"
So there you have it. A fully-fleshed, gay World War I fighter ace who battles the minions of a time-travelling overlord. And it's all thanks to J. Adrian's bePatented Character Worksheet™! Feel free to use it if you wish, just give me credit. The trademark sign is just for show, it's really copyleft, all rights reversed. May your characters shine like gems and may the be tortured by compelling, horrible dilemmas. Good luck, write diligently and have fun!