How to use character sheets

melisandeSome people love ’em, some people hate ’em. On some of the forums I frequent they seem to be a common source of angst and appeal. 

Here I will detail how I use character sheets in a way that is uninhibiting and congruent to creative writing.

Personally, I don’t build characters on a piece of paper… Oh wait, yes I do, but you get what I mean… I build characters by writing them. I absolutely adore watching them take shape before my very eyes. Adapt to their surrounds, become stronger, or weaker, get scared by things, fall in love, etc. There are ideas and developments for characters that I’ve come up with while writing that would never have occurred to me no matter how many hours I spent with a character sheet.

So don’t use them?

Now, now, now young whipper snapper, don’t get ahead of yourself. If you have written a novel, or even an anthology of short stories with recurring characters; you’ll know that continuity (even with something as simple as eye colour) can be a massive chore. That, is where character sheets come in.

If you’re writing a long piece with many characters you absolutely need to have some form of log to keep track of everything.

Don’t over do it!

You are going to run into trouble if you make complex character sheets that include every minor detail about a character. Why? Because the reader doesn’t need to know Lucy, the vampire who appears in one scene towards the end of the novel, dyes her hair, wears contact lenses, dislikes minestrone soup, chews only eucalyptus bubblegum and refuses to wear high heels.

If you give to much detail about minor characters you are going to lose the reader in a sea of “huh?”

Why remind yourself of character personalities?

I am morally opposed to character sheets that feature sections regarding “personality” – If your character is such a dud that you can’t remember he’s happy go lucky, write him out. Gone, get rid of him! If you need to be reminded of a characters personality then they are forgettable. The reader will forget them, and they shouldn’t be in your beautiful book.

So… What then?

I like to keep a running sheet of every character in the book. Getting that bad boy off the ground was a bit of a mission, though. It took two edits before I added anything more than [spoiler alert] “Eli – Protagonist.” But, when I finally did; it helped tremendously.

Instead of trying to quantify the characters into a chart, I simply take a note of what I wrote about them in the text. So for my character; Melisande Flamestouch, I have a good 300 words about what she has done, what her sword looks like, the colour of her eyes, hair, names of friends, family, where she has been and what time of year it was when she was there. Whereas for Nay, a gnome, I have one line – Blue eyes, two feet tall. wears plate armour and broad-brimmed had. That’s all I need to remember to save me from making a conflict down the track.

When it comes to character sheets; less is more. Unless you are a rigid planner, you’re much better off letting the characters develop through you, rather than generating them. People change, Lucy might start out hating high heels then love them in the end, this is the nature of characters and why people like to read about other people.

Does anyone use character sheets in their writing? Anyone a strict planner?

Thanks for reading


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