Writing Idea: Character Cards

Hi all. Been a few weeks since I spoke here, so I thought I’d once again push my brain-thoughts to your mind-sphere. If you get my meaning.

The last time we met, Smilin’ Jaq, had just ended, the world was crumbling, and Eurovision hadn’t happened yet, so there was little hope. Of those, only one has really changed, but still. Here we are again.

I’ve been doing a bit of work on another piece, and have been exploring a way to summarize characters, beyond just hoping my mind-grapes are capable of tracking a dozen individual characters in minute detail.

Today, the plan is to show you what I’ve come up with. The beauty of it is in the simplicity: there are a lot of ways to keep track of characters, but I wanted something that breaks them down in a more simple way. I don’t need a full sheet that catalogues their birth date, their childhood address, and how many freckles they have.

Enter: the Character Card. “Character” because it’s about character; “Card” because I write them on cards. For illustration, we’ll Jaq (I’ll avoid going into too much detail about her if you haven’t read it yet...but if you haven’t, go read it!)

I write these out on the lined side of an index card. 3x5, but if you want more detail, 4x6 is, certainly, an option. Now, let’s break them down, shall we?

[1] Name

 We start with the character’s name. This is the easy one, I suppose, but considering that Gandalf had a name in every language, you might take up a little extra space to do this.

[2] The Short Version

This is “2” only because it appears second; I usually do this last. This statement is a very broad-strokes impression of a character. The idea here is to summarize them in three words, with a “but” statement. “Positive, but negative.” In the case of Jaq, she can be wicked smart and well-prepared. But sometimes maybe you shouldn’t press the button.

Loyal, but hungry. Kind, but a marmoset. Gentle, but literally a polygon.

Side discovery: for one character, I wrote “Strong, but Afraid”, then realized that probably applies to every human being.

[3] What they want

This is something I wish I had worked out in more detail before I wrote Smilin’ Jaq, but I kinda started Jaq on a whim, and didn’t think too hard about it?

Anyway. This line is about what the character wants. Not just their objective, but, to borrow from Stanislavski, their superobjective (or supertask, depending on your teacher’s preferred translation).

Let’s illustrate this, because there is a difference in this distinction. Acres upon acres have been written about this, so I’ll keep it relatively simple, using a character from literature: Sherlock Holmes. We’ll talk about the Arthur Conan Doyle character, not the Moffat/Gatiss one. In fact, let’s go so far as to look at a specific story: The Adventure of the Speckled Band, in which, a young woman wants to know how her sister died, and is afraid it involves her sinister stepfather, the excellently named Grimesby Roylott.

The face that goes with the name "Grimesby Roylott". From Granada's Holmes series.

The face that goes with the name "Grimesby Roylott". From Granada's Holmes series.

Holmes takes on the case, and we get his objective for the story: solve the mystery. There’s clue-finding, adventure, and it’s generally a good Holmes tale. In fact, in 1927, it topped Conan Doyle’s own ranking of his favorite Holmes stories.

But this is only one story, out of 56...and that’s not counting the novels. This is only one moment in Holmes’ fictional life, so it would be folly to assume that, because we understand this one story, we understand Holmes. To get Holmes’ life goal, or superobjective, we would have to consider every one of those stories. (In my opinion, his superobjective would be “to be mentally engaged”, but I’m sure there are people who would fight me on that).

So, let’s assume that Jaq’s objective would be “understand the water-brains”, yeah? With only the one narrative to consider, we might have trouble putting together her superobjective, but, well, I already did it, up there: to be left alone, or at least to be left to her own devices.

Another complication: your objective might change during a narrative, but your superobjective won’t. Once Holmes discovers the truth of a mystery, his objective often changes to: “see justice done”.

[4] Do they get it?

They don’t have to! They might, or might not! In fact, if your story is one in a series, they probably won’t! Let’s continue with Sherlock Holmes. I argued that his superobjective is “to be mentally engaged”, but let’s imagine for a moment another interpretation. Let’s imagine that his life goal is another one I suggested above: “see justice done”.

In The Five Orange Pips, Holmes says “I have been beaten four times - three times by men, and once by a woman”; and one of those four is in that same story. Holmes determines who the criminals are, and attempts to see justice done, but the ship carrying the criminals is destroyed in a storm, and the men are never heard from again. The story is over, and no matter what Holmes wishes, he can’t get what he wants: those men, punished for their crimes.

[5] What they fear

This one is vital, because this is what stops our character from being a perfect model of awesome...to be a strong modern character, there has to be some kind of variance.

Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes. Luke Skywalker is afraid of his own anger. Even the Doctor has his great fears, although they’ve changed over time.

Video belongs to the BBC, as you might guess.

[6]Sin/Virtue

This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: humans are complex critters, aren’t they? F. Scott Fitzgerald, in a 1936 piece for Esquire, said “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” But this isn’t just true of the first-rate, I think it’s true of literally everyone. So, when I’m summarizing characters, I don’t just include sin, but virtue as well.

Just about everybody knows the sins, but did you know that for every sin there’s an opposing virtue? Take a look:

jaq-table-2.png

I’ve never known a greedy person who wasn’t also capable of extreme charity, or a patient person whose anger was incredible when it finally popped.

Like a character’s fear, seeing which of these sins and virtues are most dominant in character can help round them out in your mind.

[7] What Changes?

This, of course, is the heart of the thing. The core of what makes your character more than a smiley drawn on a popsicle stick and dragged through honey. There must be some kind of shift. They might not learn anything, but by the end of the narrative, something changes.

Maybe they learn the power of positive thinking. Or the value of cookies. Or that buffalo dung does not taste as good as it looks. The point is, look at something the character believes at the beginning, and figure out how the story changes that thing.


That’s it for today’s fun. I hope you got some ideas out of it, or some things you hate. Either way, speak your peace in the comments below, and maybe share around.

If you liked what you read, and want to take pity, won’t you consider donating a small something? I’m about to be out of a job, because it’s a temp job with no renewal option, and despite applying to a few dozen places, I haven’t even gotten a sit-down interview.

Also you look great today.

Cheers.

Ex nihili nihil fit.

Every growing child has their preferred Holmes. Mine is Jeremy Brett. Fight me. 

Every growing child has their preferred Holmes. Mine is Jeremy Brett. Fight me.