Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Create a Powerful Story Cast: A Master List of Character-Building Resources

By Angela Ackerman, @AngelaAckerman

Part of The How They Do It Series 

JH: Developing a novel takes so much brainpower, it's nice to find some tools to lessen the load on our creativity.  Angela Ackerman shares some great resources and tools for building and developing your characters.

Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression and its many sequels. Available in eight languages, her guides are sourced by US universities, recommended by agents and editors, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, and psychologists around the world. To date, this book collection has sold well over half a million copies.

Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop for Writers, a portal to game-changing tools and resources that enable writers to craft powerful fiction.

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Take it away Angela...

Anyone familiar with me knows I am a writing tool nut. I collect them, use them, and build them. Over the years I’ve discovered many useful tools and resources, so I thought I’d share some character-building ones that might make your next story cast easier to plan. Ready? Let’s dig in!

Naming Your Character

Let’s start here because this detail seems pretty basic and yet isn’t. Names have power. Chosen carefully, they can nudge readers toward imagining a certain type of person.

What do you envision if I say my character’s name is Mercedes…or Cinnamon? How about Winston Charles Hawthorne the third? Chances are, you’re forming opinions based on the name alone, and in storytelling, that can be the point.

Names can seed hints about a person’s upbringing, culture, education, prestige, history, and more. They can be a match for what the character does or who they are (a body builder christened Zeus), or be an ironic twist (a terribly dour, pessimistic character named Sunny). 

Either way, names can help crystallize a character in the reader’s mind. For brainstorming help, try Reedsy’s Character Name Generator or if you write fantasy, this one!

(Here's more on The Name Game: Do All Your Character Names Sound the Same?) 


Some writers find it easier to start with a character’s role and so make Archetypes their ground zero. Archetypes are familiar and therefore recognizable to readers, helping them to more quickly piece together the character and their importance in the story. If you like working with archetypes, here’s a huge Archetypes List.

A word of warning, however…using an archetype alone (especially for main characters) is a misstep. Archetypes should act as a frame which you then shape via characterization specifics (personality, beliefs, fears, goals, wounds, needs, and more). 

Unique, meaningful details lead to fresh, unforgettable characters. Shortcuts and generalizations tend to create flat, cliché, or stereotyped characters.

Outer Appearance

Confession: I do not have an artistic bone in my body. I wish this wasn’t so because having a visual of a character can be a huge help. An avatar will make a character more real to me, allowing me to gain a better sense of who they are and imagine little quirks and mannerisms to help them stand out.

The free site I used in the past is no more, but no worries…I have options for you. Look into HeroMachine or Character Creator for the basics, and if you need something more, there’s Daz 3-D.

Personality, Backstory, and More: Worksheets and Questionnaires

Angela Ackerman, characters, creating characters
Angela Ackerman
Building a character from the ground up can look different for each of us. Some are deep planners. Others may like to browse character-specific generators and when inspiration strikes, off they go, diving into a discovery draft. Still others create a character journal or print out worksheets and questionnaires.

The main thing for this latter group is to move beyond the basics. Height, weight, and favorite color are details sure, but will they shape the trajectory of a character’s story? Unlikely (unless they are more of a walk on where physicality is really all you need to know). 

The more important the character, the more you’ll want to ask “deeper” questions like those found in this Character Questionnaire.

Some of you know that Becca Puglisi and I study characters and the psychological drivers that give them complexity and cause them to behave like real people. We’ve written many character-specific writing guides and developed worksheets to cover key aspects of backstory and behavior. 

If you like, download our Reverse Backstory Tool, Backstory Wound Profile, Character Pyramid & Character Target Tools, Career Assessment, etc. as PDFs and then print them out.

Crafting Powerful Characters with One Stop for Writers’ Character Builder

Well-developed characters have deep layers, no matter if they are the protagonist or antagonist. Even secondary characters can have important roles and so require thoughtful planning. Like you or I, characters should be unique, shaped by people and past experiences (positive and negative). They will have their own personalities, quirks, emotional wounds, secrets, fears, goals, needs, motivations, talents, skills, occupations, goals, beliefs, and behaviors. (And more.)

Thinking about all these things, though? It can be overwhelming. That’s why Becca and I created a tool to explore the most important aspects of a character easily and efficiently: The Character Builder.

Start with anything: a character’s occupation, a skill, their emotional wound, or even their goal in the story. The Character Builder will access our One Stop for Writers description database (THESAURUS) and offer ideas for that area of characterization. 

Once you make a choice, the tool prompts you with specific information about your selection, encouraging you to go deeper. For example, let’s say you’re planning a character’s PERSONALITY. You know they are loyal, and so you choose this trait. 

The Character Builder will suggest a list of specific behaviors and attitudes found in someone who is loyal which you can add to the profile if you wish to. It also gives you a list of what might have caused this trait to show up in your character’s personality, nudging you to think about past experiences where the value of loyalty showed itself (maybe your character was betrayed by a family member and the only thing that got them through that terrible time was the loyalty of a friend).

Exploring one aspect leads to an epiphany in other areas. You might realize that past betrayal is actually your character’s emotional wound. So, you explore it further in the BACKSTORY tab:

As you go, the tool prompts you with ideas and options and you pick and choose what fits. The best part? The Character Builder is hyper-intelligent and will track key information associated with character arc and place it into an accurate Character Arc Blueprint. Just like that, your character’s needs, goal, internal struggles, stakes, and what they must do to succeed is laid out. (Holy cow, did plotting just get easier? YES, IT DID.)

One Stop for Writers’ Character Builder is for plotters and pantsers; sketch out a few details or create a fully-fleshed character like this one. Test it out for yourself using One Stop’s 2-week free trial.

Do you have a favorite character-building tool to add to the list? Let me know in the comments!

About The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression

becca puglisi, angela ackermanThe bestselling Emotion Thesaurus, often hailed as "the gold standard for writers" and credited with transforming how writers craft emotion, has now been expanded to include 55 new entries!

One of the biggest struggles for writers is how to convey emotion to readers in a unique and compelling way. When showing our characters' feelings, we often use the first idea that comes to mind, and they end up smiling, nodding, and frowning too much.

If you need inspiration for creating characters' emotional responses that are personalized and evocative, this ultimate show-don't-tell guide for emotion can help. It includes:
  • Body language cues, thoughts, and visceral responses for 130 emotions that cover a range of intensity from mild to severe, providing innumerable options for individualizing a character's reactions
  • A breakdown of the biggest emotion-related writing problems and how to overcome them
  • Advice on what should be done before drafting to make sure your characters' emotions will be realistic and consistent
  • Instruction for how to show hidden feelings and emotional subtext through dialogue and nonverbal cues
And much more!

The Emotion Thesaurus, in its easy-to-navigate list format, will inspire you to create stronger, fresher character expressions and engage readers from your first page to your last.

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  1. Janice, thanks for having me by today - I always love visiting FU!