Who’s in charge?

I’m a planner. Sometimes I joke planster (I realize a chapter in my plan wasn’t detailed enough) but I”m a planner. Pantsers complain about the lack of excitement of planning, they forget that if you’re planning on being published, then you not only write the novel, you rewrite it, revise it, edit it, have someone else edit it, proof it again before the print it, etc. The excitement vanishes long before the end of the road.

So I plan. Another argument I get is ‘my characters want to do something else’. I don’t have this problem. Some people would say ‘you can’t just make the characters do something against their nature!’ but I’m not. I know my character’s nature, that’s why I planned the story this way.

This is the goal of those massive character questionnaires you see. Answer these questions and you will know your character. Your character no longer surprises you. One of my writing books even suggests that if a scene feels wrong, stop writing and return to the questions and figure out why the scene feels wrong.

New writers are convinced that when they make an outline they have to stick with it. They hit a blockage, the idea the outline will be ruined — which it rarely is, there’s always an alternate path to the goal — they don’t think about characterization. It wasn’t taken into account when the outline was written and it’s a surprise when it appears to derail the story.


Susan kills Mike. They hate each other and have a massive fight. Susan grabs the gun from the other room and shoots him.

But you never wrote them that way. They were always friendly, joking, there was no tension. The disagreement they have doesn’t seem major enough for Susan to grab a gun for.

So either you can rewrite the entire story to make the characters hate each other, a characterization that should have been thought of before, or you can change the scene to reflect the characters who are.

Susan and Mike are friends, but they have a heated argument while preparing dinner. Mike makes a threatening move; Susan reflexively stabs him with the carving knife.

There are a couple of nice things here. It’s an accident, so it doesn’t matter that they’re friends. The emotional toll is greater on Susan’s behalf because she’s just harmed a friend. If the attack was all that was needed, stab wounds are survivable, even more so than bullet wounds. If she’s lucky, Mike agrees it was an accident when questioned, and she doesn’t even go to court for it.

If he needs to die, then she happened to hit just the right part. Maybe she even made the mistake of removing the knife before the paramedics came. If this was always part of the plan and she hides the body, maybe the fact he was still alive and could have been saved becomes an important part of the story.

Ironically, I named this ‘who’s in charge’ but the answer isn’t you or them. They act as any person would act in their situation. That might make them ‘in charge’, but it doesn’t make them ‘in control’.

Characters: It’s Alive!

You’ve got your idea. You’ve done your brainstorming. Now it’s time to find the pieces you need to bring your characters to life!

Characters fall into three categories:

  • the protagonist,
  • the antagonist,
  • and supporting characters.

The Protagonist

The protagonist is generally your main character or characters that are “the stars” of your novel. Most of the time your protagonist will have a mission, goal, journey, or something to overcome.

The Antagonist

The antagonist is the “villain” of your novel. The antagonist can be a physical antagonist that is physically thwarting or causing conflict for your character. The antagonist can also be an “abstract antagonist”, which is an antagonist that is not a living, breathing being, but something abstract like illness, grief, poverty, a society, religion, nature, or a corrupt government or business.

Supporting Characters

The main task of your supporting characters is to support your protagonist throughout the novel towards his goal or on his journey. Supporting characters can be friends, close relatives, love interests, etc. Sometimes supporting character also have their own little subplots which can add to your novel and word count.

How Do You Develop Your Characters Details?

Generally, when you start writing your novel, you have a notion of your characters’ personalities and how they react to certain scenarios. But sometimes you get stumped.

I know I always end up stopping my writing because I haven’t figured out something about my character beforehand. So instead of working on my main novel, I end up staring at a wall wondering if my character likes Lucky Charms or not. To prevent that from happening this year, I am planning to fill out Character Questionnaires or Character Sheets. I see it as a little cheat sheet about your characters.

The Character Questionnaire is probably one of the best way to develop your character without having to write anything in your novel. It is a great list of questions that gets you to start thinking of the tiny details that makes your character unique. Of course, you don’t have to answer every single question. Some of these questions might not even apply to your genre.

Also it is recommended that you make a character sheet for EVERY one of your prominent characters.

This Character Sheet is taken from the High school, YWP Workbook.

Section One:

  1.  Name:
  2.  Age:
  3. Height:
  4. Eye color:
  5. Physical appearance:
  6. Strange or unique physical attributes:
  7. Favorite clothing style/outfit:
  8. Where does he or she live? What is it like there?
  9. Defining gestures/movements i.e., curling his or her lip when he or she speaks, always keeping his or her eyes on the ground, etc.):
  10. Things about his or her appearance he or she would most like to change:
  11. Speaking style (fast, talkative, monotone, etc.):
  12. Pet peeves:
  13. Fondest memory:
  14. Hobbies/interest:
  15. Special skills/abilities:
  16. Insecurities:
  17. Quirks/eccentricities:
  18. Temperament (easygoing, easily angered, etc.):
  19. Negative traits:
  20. Things that upset him or her:
  21. Things that embarrass him or her:
  22. This character is highly opinionated about:
  23. Any phobias?
  24. Things that make him or her happy:
  25. Family (describe):
  26. Deepest, darkest secret:
  27. Reason he or she kept this secret for so long:
  28. Other people’s opinions of this character (What do people like about this character? What do they dislike about this character?):
  29. Favorite bands/songs/type of music:
  30. Favorite movies:
  31. Favorite TV shows:
  32. Favorite books:
  33. Favorite foods:
  34. Favorite sports/sports teams:
  35. Political views:
  36. Religion/philosophy of life:
  37. Physical health:
  38. Dream vacation:
  39. Description of his or her house:
  40. Description of his or her bedroom:
  41. Any pets?
  42. Best thing that has ever happened to this character:
  43. Worst thing that has ever happened to this character:
  44. Superstitions:
  45. Three  words to describe this character:
  46. If a song played every time this character walked into the room, what song would it be?

Section Two: Supporting Character Questions

  1. Relationship to the protagonist:
  2. Favorite thing about the protagonist:
  3. Similarities to protagonist:
  4. Differences from protagonist:

Section Three: Antagonist Question

  1. Why is he or she facing off against the protagonist?
  2. Any likeable traits?
  3. Weaknesses:

Section Four: Abstract Antagonist

  1. What is your abstract antagonist? Is it a disease like cancer, a social ill like poverty, or something larger than life, like grief?
  2. How is this antagonist affecting the protagonist?
  3. Do other characters notice? How does this antagonist affect the other people in your novel?

Warning: Characters are interesting things. Sometimes you can put together your character and bring it to life. But beware! Sometime it will have a mind of its own!