Character’s Need for a Dossier

by VJ Miller, Sr.

Characterization.

Body typesYou’re creating a short story of maybe 1 or 2k words and you probably won’t have to do more that jot down a few notes on characters, plot and locale; you should be able to knock out the story in a couple of hours. But, what if you have a dynamite idea for your first real novel of say, 80k words, or maybe you’re working on the second. How do you keep all the primary and secondary players straight and true to their characterization? And what of the incidental ones that you toss in for background; the throw away ones that will never be seen again? Then you realize near the end that a player could be useful again and you have to backtrack into your manuscript to remember  what that player was all about, time lost in research when you should be writing. The time spent creating the dossiers will reveal their benefits in the end.

Okay. Maybe you could muddle through with just a few notes in a standard notebook or computer file, but what if the novel looks like it could stand a sequel or even a trilogy, will your brief notes, if you can find them, help you keep your characterizations correct as envisioned?

Okay. You’re a little skeptical but you want to know where to begin? Fair enough. You begin by making a list of attributes such as the following.

  1.    NAME:
  2.    Age – DOB:
  3.    Height:
  4.    Weight:
  5.    Hair/Eye Color:
  6.   Gender:
  7.   Place of Birth
  8.   Health:
  9.   Likes:
  10.   Dislikes:
  11.   Sexual Orientation:
  12.  Temperament:
  13.  Appearance:

You might even add a photo of what the player looks like and if you can sketch, draw your own. The visualization helps tremendously as you will see.

Numbers 1 thru 6

are pretty much self-explanatory and it would be needless to tell you how to handle them. The rest are where it gets creative.

Place of Birth:

Seems a little needless you might think but it goes to give a hint as to what kind of accent he might have: Northern, Southern, Midwestern, possibly European, Oriental; you get the idea. Just because a person is born in a certain place does not mean he always lived there. His family could have moved at an early age making slight changes in accent as the person matured; a Chinese man with a Canadian accent might be interesting if not confusing but it gives the player some intriguing attributes. Maybe the person has a lisp; the choices are endless.

Health:

Not everyone in this world has robust health all the time. One of your players, either protagonist or antagonist could have asthma or hay fever. If explained early on in his description it could give reason why the person either coughed or sneezed at the inappropriate time. Colds get passed around work places and could make an amusing part of a scene. The player could have migraines due to a nervous disorder or just stress. Parkinson’s could be the twilight of a career that your player is trying to hang onto. Maybe your player has bad joints that crack from time to time or there is only a limp. Scoliosis or osteoporosis could be hindering your player or prevented him from attaining his desire or maybe in spite of it. But too many afflicted players could make writing a chore when it should be fun.

Likes:

This goes toward motivation. A person could like sports or gourmet food, maybe fast foods or the local greasy spoon. Certain styles of clothing; fashion plate or grunge or somewhere in-between. Fine art or abstract. Could be he likes to go for a long walk, possible in the rain to think about things. Choose from your own or a friend’s favorite likes.

Dislikes:

Again toward motivation. You could just choose the opposite of the above but maybe he/she hates chatty people or someone who doesn’t know when to shut up. Uppity people or someone who tries to demean them. Bad jokes, superstitions. The choices are endless and so are phobias.

Sexual Orientation:

Gay, straight, bi-sexual or a closet transvestite. These can be strong motivations especially if their orientation is a secret and could be ruination if revealed. Then again, the player could be unsure or ashamed of their orientation, or maybe just doesn’t care.

Temperament:

Is the player a leader or a follower, quick to anger or cool as a cucumber, talkative or clams up, introvert or extrovert, secretive and difficult to pin down. Smoldering anger but knows his place and holds it back; of course this can lead to a violent eruption when the limit is met.

Appearance:

Body Type: Is the player short, tall, fat, thin, athletic, muscular, muscle bound,. Square jaw, slack jaw, jowly, full lips thin lips, big nose or small, big ears or tiny or somewhere in-between.  Does the player have any scars, pock marks, pimples. Is he balding, does he have round or squinty eyes, dark deep set or eyes close together, maybe only one eye due to an accident? Is he clean shaven, have a moustache or beard? Most important is race.

You may not use the entire dossier in your story but it’s good to know you have it to fall back on should the player’s part evolve. More importantly it keeps you from having the player do something totally out of character later in your novel. Avid readers pick up on these things and might be annoyed, but if it’s written well they might give you a pass on the one glitch. This does not mean a coward cannot redeem himself at some point and overcome his fears; you need to give a hint at some point that this is possible. A hardboiled gangster or cop for that matter could show some compassion if given the proper incentive. All things are possible in any manuscript, but if the dead should come back to life you better have a plausible reason and do everything you can to avoid the Deus ex Machina situation. If you paint your novel into a corner have a plausible way to extricate it from that corner, not by Devine providence.

For an in-depth tutorial on how to develop your characters and which ones to develop more thoroughly see this post by Kaitlin Hillerich.  

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