It’s the end of September, folks. And that means only two things. 1) Next month is Halloween and 2) Next month is PREPTOBER. It’s true, November and NaNoWriMo are right around the corner. An actual spot of brightness in the dismal year that has been 2020. The thought has put me in a planning mood. For October and November I will be back to a weekly blog-posting schedule. Make sure you check back for lots of planning and NaNoWriMo-related topics! This week, in preparation for Preptober, my mind’s on character sheets.
What are character sheets? You might ask. A character sheet is a tool that some writers use to help further develop their characters. It’s a method of outlining various elements that define a character, resulting in a more fully realized character and, ultimately, in a more cohesive story or novel.
Creating character sheets is a common writerly practice, but not every writer refers to it as such. Maybe you’ve heard it called “interviewing your characters”. Some writers may simply include character notes in their “story bible”, which is a comprehensive document detailing important components of their story (and is especially useful if a writer plans to continue writing in the same world). Heretofore, I have not created “character sheets”, per se, but I have frequently added short character profiles to the beginning of my MS Word outline or within the nifty little character tabs in Scrivener. The processes might be somewhat different, but the end goal is the same.
Now that I have you intrigued, and you’ve decided that you want to learn more about how to develop your own character sheets, you might ask: Where can I find resources to help me create my own character sheets? Many templates can be found via a quick Google search. Because Pinterest seems to have cornered the market on creativity these days, you may also find many templates and ideas for templates there. Your best resource may simply be putting pen to paper. You are your best source for understanding what information your characters and story need, so you’re likely the best person to produce your own character sheet template.
With that being said, there are a few areas of information that I believe are useful to incorporate into your character sheets:
- In my first section, I would include The Obvious—e.g. character name, role in the novel/story, age, physical characteristics (hair color, eye color, etc), background, occupation (if pertinent), and other related items, as applicable.
- In another section, I would incorporate The Deep Stuff—including the character’s behavioral/personality attributes, strengths and weaknesses, relevant likes and dislikes, GMC (from GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon) if you’re a GMC user, and, perhaps, a general plan for the character’s arc.
- In a third section, I would include The Relationships that my character holds—primarily, important relationships, like close family members, friends, romantic partners, allies/enemies, co-workers, etc., as applicable.
- A fourth and final section of my character sheet would typically be The Fun Stuff/Miscellaneous section. This section is a bit more open to your own interpretation, but remember the goal is always a better understanding of the characters and only some information is applicable to that goal. So usually this final section, for me, includes something like the character’s birthday, life events I want to highlight, hobbies, favorite color (because why not?), and maybe even a single song that I think gets at the essence of that character. That last one is helpful for me because I like to have a novel-specific playlist to listen to while writing, and you can bet each character’s song will be on it.
There you have it. The obvious, the deep stuff, the relationships, and the fun stuff. Easy enough? Now let’s talk character sheet logistics.
How long should they be? Great question, glad you asked. As long as you think they should be! Obviously, it’s helpful if the information is easy to find. You don’t want to have to sift through lots of unnecessary information when you need to refer back to your character sheet for a specific bit of information. You also don’t want to lose sight of the purpose of these sheets. These sheets are only meant to inform your story. I say again, folks, your story is the end goal. Don’t get too caught up in the character backstory and spend such an exorbitant amount of time on character sheets that you’re never writing your story. I seem to remember J.K. Rowling saying that she wrote many, many pages on Sirius Black’s origins (perhaps from Conversations with J.K. Rowling by Lindsey Fraser?). Still, we see how that turned out for him, don’t we?
Which characters deserve a character sheet? Another great question. Main characters and supporting characters should get their own character sheets. Other characters should get a character sheet at your own discretion. Some characters are just not as important to the story. Now, that doesn’t mean you don’t need to lay out some brief developmental notes on more minor characters. If you’re completing a character sheet for these, maybe it can be focused more on only surface details–perhaps, too, with the focus toward the relationship(s) that minor character has with the more important folks.
How should the character sheet be formatted? However you want them to be! If you’re creating character sheets, then, above all, they should be useful for you. So the formatting should be a choice that is informed by perceived utility and efficiency. Neatness and organization is helpful for many of us, but you must find a method to your own madness. For my own character sheets, I’m striving to keep them (as best I can) to one page in length, broken down into similar categories to what you see above. However, for my minor characters, those sheets are much shorter with fewer categories.
Here’s an example of a character sheet for my character Eulalia, from my current work-in-progress:
Where should I keep my character sheets? Whatever works best for you! (That’s the last I’ll say it, I promise.) I’ve kept my ‘character sheets’ at the beginning of my general novel outline, but my plan is to copy and paste into a separate document so that I might print them, put them in a three-ring binder, and readily reference them when I’m writing my follow-up novel.
Should I rely on character sheets for every story? Maybe not. I think it’s helpful for us as writers to have an understanding of our characters, but that understanding does not have to come in the form of a character sheet. There are many different avenues to discovering our characters. Though I tend to make many character notes at the beginning planning stages of my novel, often I learn new things about my characters, as the story progresses.
I hope this has given you much to think about, especially as you begin planning a new story in preparation for NaNoWriMo in November. If you use character sheets in your own story planning, what character information do you include? If you use a different method for discovering your characters, what method do you use?