The Ultimate Character Map
Greetings again, grasshopper! I’m very excited to share with you my very own character map, created with my own hands…well, fingers, considering I typed it all out.
I assembled this precious document after scouring the interwebs and failing to find one that satisfied me. If you google ‘character map’ there are TONS of examples out there, but none that cover everything I think needs to be covered. Some were really long and contained extra information that wasn’t really necessary. Others were brief and only glossed over some of the essential elements of character. So I created my own!
What follows is my character map, and I’ve written out descriptions next to each item. You know, for clarity’s sake (and perhaps because I also need a reminder sometimes).
The Character Map
Story is all about a hero (or heroine) facing an obstacle (conflict) and the journey that results. This always includes something at stake, and some form of opposition resisting them.
Character is the central focus of any story. How they experience the theme. How they act along the journey. How they face the plot and antagonist.
Men and women differ. Those facts may contribute to feeling so frustration, inadequacy, inferior/superior, or lead to them being deprived of opportunities. An ugly female reacts differently than one confident of her looks. A clumsy boy might envy a sibling’s superior coordination. Weight, height, etc. all have a part to play when crafting character and personality.
A child who grows up in the slum vs. the country, for example, are important differences. East vs West. Mississippi vs California. It all plays into character and how they’ll react to conflict or experience/express emotion.
A factory worker, cowman, preacher, or peddler. A man perfectly comfortable in a gambling den might feel out of place in a church.
Behavior differentiates between circumstance. Among old friends, comfort lends itself to confident expression. But what about when presented with someone who might make the character feel inadequate and inferior?
We all see ourselves in a particular light. Attractive, honest, strong, ugly, or coward.
Everyone has preferences. If you want to make your character appear real, they should have clear preferences, opinions, likes and dislikes. This also opens up possibilities in the story. Does your heroine like to wear silk? Does she hate the feel of denim on her skin? Does your hero only listen to opera? Does he absolutely abhor beer? The possibilities are endless.
The Thing they Want:
This directly plays into character arcs and is a necessary tool for creating conflict. It’s not enough to have just a surface goal. This goal is an extension or reflection of something that matters to the character on a deep level. This is almost always something external, something physical. Your character is using this to salve his inner emptiness with exterior solutions.
The Thing they Need:
This doesn’t have to be physical, however, it can (and should) take on a physical or visual manifestation by the end of the story. This is usually going to be nothing more than a realization.
Your character’s ghost is an emotional trauma. It can be suffered long ago, or recently, but it haunts them… like a ghost! It’s an internal scar that hasn’t healed, a burden they bear. Think of this as an actual ghost. It haunts them, weighs them down, stalks their every move, every decision. The ghost is an all-encompassing entity that is present until it is defeated. A ghost plays a particularly strong role in a character arc.
This is the silent war between your character’s Want and Need (refer to above). But it’s also the fuel in the generator of the outer conflict.
The goal your character shows to the world.
This is a classic defense mechanism. When we (or characters) lack something—courage, intelligence, determination—we defend ourselves. We grow tense and restless: unhappy, discontented, ill at ease. We substitute one type of behavior for another in order to achieve victory. This is the root of defensiveness. Our egos are protecting themselves from a feeling of inadequacy. It happens in people, and therefore characters, shocking I know!
Compensation is what your character substitutes for what he hasn’t got. The price he pays to make up for what he lacks, the behavior with which he attempts to ease the sting of engendered by feelings of inadequacy. It can be as simple as the character who drinks too much, is always angry, or always sad.
Classic fight or flight. Does your character face things head on? Do they face the charging conflict with teeth bared and fists raised? Have you ever seen a horse fight a foe? They are vicious in their goal. Teeth bared, hooves striking, head whipping.
Or do they run? Do they withdraw from the battle to preserve ego from further bruises? Have you seen a horse run for its life? Legs pumping, nostrils rippling, neck stretched long.
Some don’t fight or fly. Some freeze and cower in place, hoping to be overlooked, and passed by without a second thought. I fall in this bucket, I freeze faster than Mr. Freeze on a crime spree in Gotham.
Conflict is essential. Without it, a character isn’t required to display courage or surmount his own demons. Without conflict, life is easy, and that’s not what a compelling story is made of. Therefore, conflict is necessary for character and theme and plot.
What’s going on inside their head? What are they thinking? How are they facing the external conflict, inside?
External conflict is the easiest. It’s the bad guy hurling a bomb. It’s the verbal fight. However, external conflict shouldn’t be the only conflict found. We all have both internal and external conflicts.
Complications increases (and continues to increase) the tension that keeps readers on their toes. Make sure the complications are sufficiently terrible to build up the worry and desire. However, be careful, it must not be so dark that’s its impossible at the end to give the relief readers desire…unless grimdark is your genre 😉
What plagues them? What keeps your hero awake at night?
This is the most important tool to help readers believe your character is real. If you can’t tell readers what your characters’ motives are, they will assume a boring, obvious motive, be it cliché, stereotypical or archetypal. To make your character believable, more real, more complete, give them complex and even contradictory motives. An unmotivated character will not be acceptable in fiction.
A word of caution: Your motivation will only be sound if the character always acts faithfully toward that motivation. They should always act like the type of person you’ve shown them to be. Remain constant throughout. Motive is at a story’s heart. It is the most potent form of causal connection, so every revision of motive is a revision of the story.
What traits do they have? Are they loyal? Steadfast? Are they lazy, unmotivated blobs? Are they compassionate and sincere? We all have a combination of both positive and negative attributes. Don’t be afraid to assign your precious hero negative attributes.
Inconsistencies and contradictions:
An interesting character, like an interesting person, has contradictions in their personality. The hero that is lazy, but doesn’t stand others to be so. The heroine who loves dressing up, but has no dresses. The hero who donates money to homeless shelters, but will not buy his favorite gal a steak.
Surface traits, quirks, habits. What you show the reader about your character. Don’t assign meaning to it. For example, if your character drives an old mustang. The reader may or may not assign meaning to it, but the second you do, it’s now within the second dimension.
Backstory and inner demons. This is where the reader learns of the reasons behind the choices and behaviors within the first dimension. This is where backstory, and a deeper meaning, is exposed for the reader. The mustang was a gift from his deceased grandfather, and they worked on it together when he was a boy. This is straight out of his backstory, and that creates depth to the first dimension information (the mustang) with second-layer dimension.
Action, behavior, and worldview. All the choices made from first and second dimension applied with greater weight and consequences. If your hero wrecked the mustang to avoid hitting a child, despite the sentimental meaning. This is the third dimension because it shows his true character and what’s important to him. Basically, the character’s moral compass. The first and second dimension choices are not always aligned with the third dimension choices. Third dimension choices in the latter part of a story are the essential means of showing character growth, also known as character arc.
Characters must be unique. If every character in your story is exactly the same, sharing similar tendencies and habits, they will quickly lose any interest. In addition to this, your reader must feel something for your characters. This even applies to anti-heroes. There needs to be some common threads that link your reader to your character. They can feel pity, contempt, respect, tenderness, and sexual excitement. But feelings must be there.
Labels only go so far. You can label your character cruel, or sexy, or dignified. But the real character development comes from what you SHOW your readers. Think back to when you first met someone. Like it or not, you formed a dominant impression about them. The same goes for character.
How does impression fit to role:
This is directly linked to the above. The dignified man isn’t really that. He’s a scared little puppy hiding behind his dignity. Or he is exactly that. He was groomed from a young age to be nothing but the perfect example of a male.
Modify the picture:
This is where you turn stereotypes into your unique blend. This is what makes your character unique. Everyone, real and make believe, are a vast labyrinth of inconsistencies and contradictions. This is what makes life unique. Capture this mystery in print, and poof! Your characters will seem real. Take the dignified man and make his favorite food: chicken wings, nachos, and beer. Take the predictable and give it your own personal twist.
Assign appropriate tags:
Tags are labels. You hang tags on your characters so that readers are able to differentiate one character from another. This creates an impression, dominant or otherwise.
The most basic of appearances. Tall, short, handsome, ugly, hairstyle, eye color, skin tone, ethnicity, etc. You can by hyper-specific, or you can be a bit vague and allow
This is another chance to individualize your character. A southern drawl, or a British accent. A college professor might talk differently than a high school dropout. Language reflects background, experience, social status, and many other things. This doesn’t just mean speech tags. This means the words they use, how they use them, and when.
The physical indications people display. Men who scowl constantly. Women who play with their hair. Those who clean their glasses excessively, or always rub their noses.
Attitude is the partner of cause. Motive tells us why your character acts why he does. Attitude is how he reacts to outside events. Attitude can provide great tension in a scene. Therefore, attitude and motivation become intertwined. How a character responds to an event A, will provide a motive for B, C, and D. Think of the habitually apologetic, fearful, vain, egotistical. Think how your favorite characters have screwed themselves over because of their attitude.
How is their life interrupted:
The move from the normal world into the shadow world.
Why can’t they give up:
What’s fascinating about them:
What’s their role:
Which (if any) arc will they follow:
Positive, negative, or neutral.
How do they deal with danger:
How does their behavior tell the story:
Integration of inner and outer man:
It’s all about crafting a complete picture. Tags and impressions mirror dynamics. So match any external behavior to dynamics, and vice versa. Tom’s obsession with prefect grooming may show doubts about his inner worth. Laura’s secret guilt may reach the surface in a tendency to take more than her share of blame.
Match character to cast:
Each character needs to make a different dominant impression. Variety is the spice of life is a saying for a reason.
How are they enviable:
Readers should be a little jealous of the characters they read about. They want to do these things but can’t. Create a character a reader would like to be like, someone to envy.
How are they courageous:
Courage to attempt to control reality:
How do they attempt to control reality:
Limitations define reality. It’s law, whether it’s natural or man-made. But it goes beyond that. It can be physical, psychological. Fantasy opposed reality. All things humans can conceive of, yet we dare not do. Specifically, the impossible, unattainable, forbidden, and disastrous.
How do they attempt the impossible, unattainable, forbidden and disastrous:
Courage is the leading issue, not victory. Conflict is what novels thrive on. The characters struggle against the world and all the overwhelming odds mounted against him. An exciting character is the one who challenges fate and attempts to surmount reality, despite everything. That includes common sense and logic.
The impossible is what dreams are made of. Pure fantasy, and man’s revolt against natural law itself.
The unattainable lies more within our grasp. The servant who aspires to marry a lord. The detective who seeks to find the murder before they execute their spouse tomorrow.
The forbidden? Any psychologist will tell you mortals dream of what they cannot have. A sweet cheesecake cooling in the refrigerator tempting everyone to sneak a bite. I always crave a burger and fries when I decide to diet.
Those who push the envelope represent the disastrous. Think of those who pioneered flight. Think of Madame Curie, who spent her life playing with radiation to explore the unknown.
The impossible, unattainable, forbidden, and disastrous all make up the building blocks in which you combine with courage. This creates a character that both excites and fascinates readers.
How do they resemble the reader:
An excellent character should resemble the reader, bringing life to those little letters on a page.
Do they fit into an archetype:
The lover, hero, magician, outlaw, explorer, sage, innocent, creator, ruler, caregiver, everyman, or jester.
This plays directly into character arc. The characteristic moment should be something so on point for your character that there is no mistaking their personality for anything else.
How do they suffer:
Suffering is how motivation is revealed.
How do they sacrifice:
How do they put aside their own wants and needs to better serve both the story, conflict, and passions.
Any signs or portents:
Like Heathcliff and thunder in Wuthering Heights. This is where something, an event, a sound, a smell, appears when a specific character is on page. This can be very important in terms of symbolism relating to the theme.
What do they fear:
Fear can be more than spiders or enclosed spaces. They could fear rejection, love, or acceptance. They could travel the world to escape what they fear the most.
How do they react to:
Reactions are unique, and they are how character is more deeply exposed.
World and life in general:
That, my friends, is my extensively explained character map. Since I love to toot my own horn, I find this to be the most detailed and in-depth exploration of character you can find 😉 It allows you to decide what your character will be, and how they will act and react to any circumstance you throw at them.
Here is a link to an empty character map, so you can download it without having to erase all the explanations.
Now! Go forth and write!