Finding Those Defining Character Traits

Sometimes characters show up out of nowhere, fully formed, but other times, they are illusive little buggers who keep their secrets hidden.  Oftentimes, the key to a character comes to me in one small detail, something that defines the character for me and influences all of his actions and choices.

Sometimes a key detail will come to me while I'm drafting.  And, if I'm lucky, it will come before I ever start, but more often than not, the real character works comes after the first draft. Some writers like to do the deep character work before they ever start writing, but I like to do it after the first draft.  When I'm drafting, I like to let the characters grow organically with the story, and I let the characters develop on the page, but once I start to revise, I know that there is still a lot of work to be done.  That's when I start playing with character traits through writing exercises like journals and character worksheets.

My first character worksheet was done through the YA Muses.  I did one for Blake, the main boy in SILVER and then, for fun, answered the same questions for his rival, Austin.  One of the questions was what your character would do if they found themselves in Vegas with $500 to spend.

Blake was easy- he would head to a poker table and put it on one hand (he was always a big money poker player), but Austin surprised me.  Austin was trouble with a capital "T" and I kind of assumed that he would do something debauched, but he caught me completely off guard when the answer that came out was that he would use the money to fly back to where ever Brianna happened to be.  I'm embarrassed to admit it, but until that moment (many drafts into SILVER) I hadn't realized that Austin was so single-mindedly focused on Brianna. But once I did, it made every subsequent scene with Austin so easy to write.  No matter what was happening around him, I knew, that if he could, he would sweep it all aside for the one girl he loved.  And that defined every choice he made. 

Understanding a character often comes down to understanding what a character wants, both internally and externally.  That sounds simple enough in theory, but in reality, the characters often have different goals than I think they do. But those moments when characters surprise me are also the moments when they start to feel real to me.

I'm about to dive into a second draft on a new project, but before I do, I'm going to do a few character worksheets and see what I can discover.  Care to join me?


Absolutely! I've been doing character worksheets throughout my current revision, but you've inspired me to create one more for a character who needs a little extra dimension. Thanks, Talia!

I love the idea of asking "What would [character] do if they were in [place/situation] with [item/person]! I'd love to know what other questions you asked each other!

Hi Lia, you can click to the link in the post to see the character worksheet we were working from.

I am IN! And I love that part about Austin and Blake--their very different answers to the same question. It is so cool when characters surprise us like that!

I'm in too! This is such a great tool. And so fun!

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