Helping Authors Understand Character Development
Authors often use character sketches to understand their characters better. They’ll haul out a template and fill in the blanks with descriptions of the character’s appearance, when they were born, where they went to school, who gave them their first kiss, and more.
While some of these details can be important in character description—it’s useful for the author to remember that Murgatroyd is bald—this type of fill-in-the-blank exercise is fundamentally flawed. Character development isn’t saying, “Murgatroyd went to Yale.” Character development is saying, “Murgatroyd punched Nicholas for claiming that Harvard was a superior school.”
In other words, character development happens through action and dialogue, reaction and thought, motivation and goals—not details of biography.
An author doesn’t need to know where Murgatroyd went to school so much as the author needs to know what Murgatroyd would say and do if he felt insulted, and what kinds of things would make him feel insulted.
One thing I often recommend that authors do—rather than fill in yet another mundane character sketch—is to have the character take an aptitude test or a personality test, like the ones employers and career coaches do. These tests do not ask where you went to school but what your interests are and how you would react to common situations. An introvert character is going to act differently from an extravert; a doer differently from a thinker; a loner differently from a social butterfly.
Here’s a collection of such tests to try: https://www.themuse.com/advice/14-free-personality-tests-thatll-help-you-figure-yourself-out