Some time ago, I had my Creative Writing students draw up a map of the town in which their story takes place. I had them label streets, buildings, homes, shops, etc. The response was greatly varied, from island villas to battleships, to starships, to fantasy worlds with sprawling deserts and forests. Then, I had them write a short scene in which their primary character is in this particular location in the midst of some conflict. The results were some of the best writing I’ve ever seen from them.
The idea got me thinking: what if I had them do a character map? I wasn’t sure exactly what form it would take when I came up with the idea, but a few hours of planning lead me to the following prompt. It’s one that worked out equally as well. Some of you may have done something similar, but I’d encourage you to give this a shot to see what develops.
1) Draw your character. Be as detailed as possible—what types of clothes do they wear? What color are their eyes, hair, etc? Style of their haircut? Don’t give me a stick figure. I want art, or the closest you can get to it. This will serve as a reference guide for you. Whenever you need to add physical description of your character, you can refer back to this map for consistency. “But Aaron,” you say. “I’m a terrible artist!” Understand, it doesn’t need to be Leonardo Da Vinci good. It just needs to serve the purpose. Stick figures are notorious for their lack of detail.
2) Label each part of your character with callouts that take this form: “These are the eyes that …” For example, draw a line to your characters eyes and, off to the side, write “These are the eyes that saw his father drive away and not come home.” Repeat this process for every major part of your character, whether or not you think the information is relevant. Surprise yourself with your answers. Pick random body parts (for example, don’t limit yourself to eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and fingers—all of which should be labeled with their own history, but then go beyond—heart, elbow, ribs, knees, etc.). Imagine something like this: “This is the elbow that Mark shattered when it was closed in the door of a semi truck while hitchhiking from Utah to Montana.” (Okay, honestly, I have no idea where that came from, but it’s an interesting detail, don’t you think?)
This kind of physical history will inform you of how your character physically interacts in his or her physical world. Do they limp? Favor a shoulder? Blink repeatedly? Why? This map should help you understand that, and it may make your character a little more visceral. You’d be surprised what you find out about your character. Just don’t forget to ask yourself the tough questions: how does this change my character? How does this scar that he got when he was a child, change who he is thirty years later? Ask the tough questions. Your readers already do.