Characterization, On Writing

Create a ‘Residents File’ for Your Characters

October 28, 2012

Creating the characters who will populate your novel is a fun exercise.

One way to do it is to create a “Residents File” for your novel.

Here’s how:

Reserve a sheet of paper for each character.

On that paper, you will give each character the following:

  •  Name
  • Age
  • Occupation
  • Standout ways of relating to others (two words that are the way most people would describe this character – friendly but phony, angry and sly, fretful and hardworking, worried and devout, calm and devious, thoughtful but officious, irritating but talented, etc.


Combine 3 and 4, and you have a four-word thumbnail sketch of your character: e.g., friendly but phony executive, arrogant but hardworking politician, worried but devout teacher, loud but talented chef, and so on.

Do this for each of the key characters that populate your novel. The end result will be your Residents File.

This will be helpful to you as you write your story because these character “sum ups” suggest plot lines and also help you make story choices more easily. A worried but devout teacher won’t make an unethical choice easily – but what if she were coerced into acting against her beliefs? What would be the consequences? For one thing, she would probably suffer pangs of guilt and might take action accordingly – action that might move the plot forward.

The above way of creating characters helps you create characters who are unique and distinct.

Another way to ensure your characters are distinct from one another, is to give each a few unique “bits of business.” “Bits of business” is a term actors use to describe small details they use to bring a stage or film character to life.

That can be: details of appearance or style (always wears a baseball cap, wears a favorite pair of sneakers everywhere, etc.); speech (accent, education, nasal, gruff, etc.); talents, skills and knowledge areas (wine connoisseur, golf, other sports, hobbies, special training, etc.); habits (good or bad), eccentricities, and/or nervous mannerisms. It also is useful to give a character something physical that makes him/her stand out: aviator glasses, toupee, whisky and cigarettes voice, and so on.

The one thing you need to do is avoid creating cliche characters like the brilliant but absent-minded professor, the strong but dumb jock, etc.

Unique and fresh characters make your plot come alive.

Can you create more complicated files on each of your characters? Certainly. You can write complicated biographies for each of them, if you wish. But the Residents File method of thinking through your characters is a useful exercise – whether or not you later opt for greater complexity. And you may find that this shorthand method of characterization is all you need.

Happy writing!

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