For today’s writing exercise, I decided to post part of the character sheet I wrote up for William Johnson, one of the main characters of Out of the Sea. I’ve not included every part of the sheet, because the whole thing totals over 1,300 words, but I thought you might enjoy seeing some of what makes William tick.
Incidentally, I will be getting back to working on this story, once I’m finished with school. For those of you who have expressed interest in reading it, I appreciate your devotion–I have not forgotten!
Character’s Full Name: William Johnson
(Why did your character’s parents give them this particular name? Is there a story behind it?)
William was named after his father, so technically he is William Johnson II but he doesn’t use the “II” ever since his father’s death. With friends and family, he goes by Liam.
Appearance: William is tall and lanky, and despite being beyond puberty, carries himself awkwardly. His hair is light brown, wavy and long; it falls to his shoulders though he usually keeps it tied back and typically wears a hat. He has a bump on his nose from when he broke it as a child, playing in the shipyard across the river from his home.
What experience wounded your character on an emotional level? When he was eleven years old, he learned of his father’s death at sea. His father had been a whale-man, and William only saw him sporadically as a child, but they were, nonetheless, close. He prefers not to talk of his father’s death and if asked by strangers, will answer that his father has simply been away at sea for a long time.
How does that “hurt” affect your character’s choices? Ultimately, William signs on to a whaling vessel as the ship’s cooper, mostly to learn the circumstances of his father’s death, though he tells his family that his reason is more to do with the economic recession in the area at the time (early 1890s, Connecticut).
What does your character fear? Being that he doesn’t know how to swim and finds himself on a ship for many years, his biggest fear is death by drowning.
What is your character’s guilty pleasure? William often finds himself eavesdropping. He generally keeps what he learns to himself; he isn’t a gossip. However, he is inquisitive about other people, their motives, their histories…and when he can, he listens in to derive as much as he can about a person. He’d much rather eavesdrop than have an actual conversation with people he doesn’t know very well. This could also be considered a flaw, but he has others so I put it under the guilty pleasure category.
List a few of your character’s quirks (irrational fear, weird habit, strange process, etc.): William’s fear of drowning is quite rational, given his five-year plan and inability to swim or stay afloat in moving water. He does have an irrational fear of his father’s spirit. He tells himself it is illogical that his father’s spirit would haunt the ship on which he died, but once William begins sailing on it, he has more difficulty rationalizing the sounds and sights on board. This fear is only fueled by several of the other crew members who are as superstitious as they come.
William does have a touch of OCD. When he is working, for example, when he’s about to assemble a cask to contain water or whale oil, he lays all the staves out, arranges them in the shape of the cask, lays them out again, and then assembles. This is almost a measure-twice-cut-once type of practice, but the staves have already been measured, cut, and numbered in order so that assembly should be a smooth process.
List a few of your character’s flaws: As mentioned above, William has a habit of eavesdropping. However, I would say his major flaw is that he makes rash decisions. He doesn’t pause to think things through or weigh the consequences–at least for much of his story. He does get better at tempering himself toward the end, but his hastiness causes problems for him in the beginning and middle of the story.
Character Background (Where did they grow up, who is their family, what is their education level, class, origin, etc.?) William grew up in a small fishing village on the west bank of the Mystic River, in Connecticut. He was born in 1868, in New Bedford, MA, but his family soon moved to Connecticut because the ship his father worked for changed ownership. Shortly before his father’s death, he entered an apprenticeship to become a cooper, but when the recession of the 1890s hit, his apprenticeship was over and there wasn’t enough work at the cooperage, so he decided to go to sea. He has a younger sister, Catherine, and his mother, Ella, who are both still alive. His best friend, Thomas, is engaged to his sister.
Describe a specific place that terrifies your character. Cape Horn terrifes William the most. After stories his father told him, and stories he hears from Thomas and his crew mates, he considers leaving the ship before they round the Cape. The violent, unpredictable weather intensifies his already existing fear of drowning and/or being lost at sea.
Your character owns an object that is extremely important to them. Please write about what the object is, and explain the story behind why that object is so important? William’s most important item is his cooper’s hammer. A very specific tool with one blunt end and one tapered end, this hammer is used not only to help with general carpentry (for which a cooper was sometimes responsible on a whaling ship), but also makes it possible to effectively disassemble and assemble casks. Without this tool, William cannot do his work; it would not only impede his ability to earn money but also represents an item for reflection in light of the economic setting of his life.
What’s your character’s secret? William doesn’t want Thomas to marry his sister because he doesn’t want Catherine to suffer the loneliness that Ella knew by marrying a sailor. He lures Thomas into joining him on a five to six year whaling endeavor in order for his sister to find someone else to marry during their absence.