Who doesn’t love a short list?
Every writer needs lists. And I count a few favorite lists as if they were templates or cheat sheets. All treats for the muse, who comes out to play for rewards like any pampered child.
One of my favorite character lists is based on the four ancient elements. Divide a sheet of paper in half vertically and list the four elements:
- Fire – for passion, whether it’s political, career goals, spiritual or hobby
- Air – what the character knows, studies, researches, believes and reasons from
- Water – emotions, relationships, spiritual practices, meditation, feelings and intuition
- Earth – external conditions, body type and appearance, home, work, daily routines
First fill in for the heroine or protagonist. Then give the villain or antagonist (or the hero in a romance novel) something else at each level. You want qualities to draw them together, but also qualities to create friction.
Sometimes I play with this idea, with gratitude to Colleen Mariah Rae, author of Movies in Your Mind: First pick a habit for the character. Make it something simple but extreme. All readers have a couple of books in reserve–but maybe your character buys books compulsively and fills the house and stoage unit with books. How does she describe the habit? What does her best friend say? And her worst enemy? Now you’ve got three perspectives–and you can give one to the main character and one of the other perspectives to another character. One way or another, that habit’s going to get her in trouble and need to be resolved.
And another list, this time based on ideas from Dwight Swain, author of Techniques of the Selling Writer: Make two lists, one of nouns of occupation and the other of adjectives of personality. Mix and match to begin the design of a complex character. You might, for example, come up with a biologist who is terrified of cats or a nurturing lawyer. Give yourself an extra word or two if your character needs it.