The Dossier Method for Developing Strong Characters

I’ve been watching a series of Brandon Sanderson’s lectures about writing fantasy. I consider him one of the best character writers and I think it’s one of the things that keeps his books so grounded even when the plot gets way out there. I am willing to buy into more fantastical aspects of his plots when I really care about the characters and when they feel real.

The reason I fell in love with the Mistborn series so quickly and read them all so quickly was that I grew to care so deeply about the characters in the series and was completely invested in their story and wanted to know what happened to them.

This was surprising to me because before reading this series, I’ve always been much more drawn to plot, ideas, and style in a story (which is why I usually gravitate toward science fiction or surreal post-modern literature) and never found myself caring too much about characters. It was also unexpected because my previous attempts of reading fantasy always left me underwhelmed, so it had been a genre that I had given up on and decided wasn’t my cup of tea.

There are a few techniques that Brandon Sanderson likes to use to develop characters. One of these methods is miscasting archetypes. This method consists of laying out the characters in your story and the basic role they play, such as mentor, barbarian, or best friend, and thinking about the worst possible type of person/archetype to cast in that role.

So you could end up with the mentor who is also the villain, the barbarian with crippling anxiety, the best friend who is also a misanthrope. This juxtaposition of roles naturally creates conflict and can serve as a constant source of interesting developments and problems that can keep the story moving.

But the method I want to focus on is the dossier method. Below is a brief explanation of what this method is and how it can help create richer stories, but I have a sample dossier you can use at the end of the article.

This method consists of using a list of questions to answer about your character. Questions that you may not have thought of before because they were not relevant to the story. By answering these questions, you create a deep background to a character that you can draw upon in subtle ways and can help inform you about how a character would react in any given situation.

This also helps to create the iceberg illusion for your story. Great stories, especially stories with a lot of worldbuilding, feel real and lived in. For every part of the world or lore, you as a reader explore, it should feel as though there is a massive part of the world that is living and breathing, even though you don’t get to see it.

I once heard a pretty cool litmus test for a well-crafted fictional world ( I wish I could remember where or from who I heard this) but the gist is this: a setting s or scene should feel as if it continues even when the scene is over or the characters leave. If the setting or story only feels like it springs up around the scene to serve the plot, but vanishes when the plot moves on, then the world may need more development so it can stand on its own legs outside of explicit narration.

We can all imagine the Mos Eisley cantina and what kinds of things might happen there even without Luke, Han, and Obi-Wan looking for a pilot. You can probably picture shady characters playing Sabakk in a dark corner, service droids beeping and moving about, bounty hunters scoping out the scene nursing some glowing drink, the constant chatter of unfamiliar alien languages, and maybe the occasional stormtroopers stalking the cantina looking for rebels.

I think this applies to characters as well. It should feel as if there is a deep and rich sense of a character’s story and personality, even if we only see a slice of it. The dossier method can help writers develop this rich backstory and profile for a character which will give the character a sense of weight and depth that they may not otherwise have. Only developing the surface-level characterization needed to fulfill the plot can leave a character feeling shallow and bland.

This kind of deep characterization can be a double-edged sword, however. Many writers don’t want to go through the trouble of coming up will all this great information and not include all of it in the story. This is an example of showing the whole iceberg and it’s a great way to bog down your story with unnecessary details that don’t move the plot forward but just weigh the reader down with trivia about your character.

It’s important to have the self-control necessary to create things about your world and characters that will never be explicitly explained in the writing. The iceberg works best when you only see a little part of it but you know there’s a much larger part hidden below the surface. This is where the reader’s imagination is put to work and when your world feels more real.

What’s the point then, you might ask, of coming up with all these little details about a character if you’re not going to mention them in your story? Well, these things can shine in little subtle ways without having to draw the whole thing out. For example, if you decide in your dossier that your character had a lifetime of betrayal as a child and developed trust issues as a result, you can use this knowledge to make your character act in a more believable way, like not being convinced easily or not wanting to share their things. The information informed how your character behaves, which already makes the character more interesting, and these behaviors hint at a past of mistrust without having to explain it. Filling this out is a great way for you as a writer, to really understand your character.

The readers don’t need to understand your characters on a level this deep – unless that’s the kind of story you’re going for. As a writer, however, knowing the intricate details of your character will help you get in their heads decide how they will respond in certain situations, giving the impression that this is a character with a fleshed-out psychological profile, history, and personality.

Without further ado, here is a modified character dossier I have been using based on the character dossiers from https://theelementsofwriting.com/character-dossier/ and https://tinadubinsky.com/character/. Not all of these may apply to your character or story, but feel free to use what’s helpful to you. After all, these are just tools, not rules.


Personal and Family Background


Age and birthday:


Parents’ ethnic background, upbringing, hopes and fears, and careers:

Place in the family’s birth order:

Jobs in the past:

First kiss:

Favorite food:

Physical Characteristics


Hair and eye color:  

Sound of voice:

Conversational tics:

Physical peculiarities:

Mannerisms while walking, talking, working, and playing:


Knowledge, abilities and skills:

Pastimes as a child … and as an adult:

Sidekicks and mentors:

Intellectual and emotional influences:

Rivals and foes at different stages of life:

Not-so-good influences—skeptics, and tempters:

Political leanings—and major political influences:

What others notice first:

How the character changes over the course of life:

Turning points in life:




All-consuming desires and why can’t they have it:

Core need of the character:

Pathological maneuver (What the character does under stress, usually the flip side of their core need):

Most admirable qualities:

Least admirable qualities:


Flaws and fatal flaw:

Attribute they admire:

Likes and dislikes:

Sexual identity:

Philosophy of life:

Optimism or pessimism:

Energy level:

What the character does when alone:

What the character thinks about when alone:  


Greatest fears at different stages of life:

Favorite and least favorite memory:

Deep dark secret:

Article art by Bruna Richter: https://brunarich.tumblr.com/post/189039311481/my-take-on-vin-from-mistborn-series-by-brandon

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