Today, I would like to discuss one of my favorite writing tools: the character sheet.
Characters form the heart and soul of a story. They can breathe life and energy into an otherwise dry tale. So, naturally, their creation is a very important skill for a writer to learn. I suspect there are as many methods for generating new characters as there are writers. Who’s to say one method is better than the other?
Not me, that’s for sure. But I have developed a method that works for me. Here’s what I do.
When an idea for a story begins to take form, I determine what roles I will need. How many characters are required to tell the story? Where are their places within the story? What functions need to be filled?
I divide the roles into two categories: Technical and Personal. For example, if I’m writing a story about an elite military squad, a Technical list might look like this:
- Squad Leader
- Demolition Specialist
- Tech Expert
And a Personal list might resemble this:
- Main Character
- Love Interest
- Dependable Cohort
- New Guy/Gal
I can then combine the two lists, mixing and matching, looking for holes as I go. The result might look something like this:
- Squad Leader – Main Character
- Sniper – Love Interest
- Demolition Specialist – Dependable Cohort
- Tech Expert – New Guy/Gal
This list will go through many revisions as the story evolves from a crude sketch to a more robust outline. For me, it’s easy to mix and match the Personal and Technical roles. Some characters may have multiples of one type or even both. This can be especially true for major characters. Roles can, of course, change as a story progresses, but that is something I save for the plot outline itself.
These roles form the basic building blocks for the characters. Once I’m happy with the roles I’ve listed, I begin to add details and depth to each character. In order to do this, I use a character sheet.
My character sheets vary a little from novel to novel, but they’re mostly the same. Basically, it’s one big list of characteristics that I fill in order to gain a better feel for the character. Character sheets also serve as excellent references when I’ve forgotten the cool details I had planned.
This is one of the reasons I outline so heavily. I forget stuff.
So, what do these character sheets look like? Well, they look like this, actually:
- Character Description
- Poignant Memories
- Past Traumas
- Sense of Humor
- Speech Pattern
And yes, I fill in each line for almost every character I write about. Does all of that make it into the novel? Is all of that even relevant? Do I need to do this? No, of course not. But filling in all of that stuff helps me develop each character into an individual, unique voice. It’s a tool I use, nothing more. If it helps me write the character, then the tool has done its job.
It may not be the best way to craft characters, and it certainly won’t work for everyone, but it’s a method that has served me well for many years.
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Matt Gallagher says
This is a much better sheet then the ones I write up. I tend to just write a paragraph outlining their previous history so I can keep track of how they should react to events in the plot. I understand the issue with remembering details, I have the same issue. I hate to admit it, but every time I go to do an edit of my novel if a few months have passed I’ve forgotten half the character’s names! That was back before I wrote sheets of any kind, I should fix that…
Thanks, Matt. I’m a big believer in careful and comprehensive outlining when writing a novel, though I do know one person who finds that outlining can actually stall the creative process and lead to writer’s block. Writing is a very personal thing, so to each their own, I say. 🙂
Chris First says
That list of yours looks nearly the same for every NPC, be it villain or friendly, that I create for my D&D / Pathfinder games. 🙂 Well except the ones that are destined to be cannon (or should that be ballista) fodder.
By the way how are you doing Jacob? I’ve lost your personal email and all I have is your work number. Give me a call or email when you get the chance.
Dude, you should seriously take one of your campaigns and write a novel around it. You know I’d be first in line to read it. 🙂 Also, I’ll send you an e-mail from my personal account.