Monday, December 26, 2011

The "Why" of Character Worksheets

There are a lot of character worksheets floating around. You might have seen a few yourself. They list hair color, eye color, occupation, age, clothing preferences, voice qualities, car, hobbies -- the lists vary, but the idea is the same. Fill out this list, and you will have a quick reference sheet to help you recall whether the police detective drives a Ford or a Buick and what color the pretty waitress's eyes were in chapter three. It's a good and useful aid to memory, and any good copy editor will have several such forms on hand to help them do their jobs.

But if you, the author, fill out a sheet like this and think you've created a character, you might have only done half the job. Sure, you have to remember whether the heroine's house is a ranch or a Cape Cod. But if I tell you, "Juliet lives in a white brick Georgian house," do you understand her character any better? Not really. Not without knowing why she lives there. Is it her dream house, or does she think it's a lemon? Did she inherit it? Did she buy it in a rush when her job relocated her across the country? Her relationship to the house -- the why of the house -- tells us more about the character than the fact of the house alone.

When you fill out one of these worksheets, ask "Why" at every stage. Sometimes the answers might be a little pat. Why is the romance heroine 27 years old? Because this is a good age to marry and start a family. It might really be that simple. Then again, think about how your story would change if your romance heroine was 67 or 17. Maybe now she doesn't have to worry about getting pregnant. Or maybe the hero has to worry about the age of consent. How does a simple detail like age affect the essentials of the story? Whatever the effect, understanding that will help you understand the "why" of your character choices. And when you understand that, then you understand your characters in a deeper, more meaningful way.



Gayle Carline said...

I find that writing a "journal" entry with each character's worksheet helps me with the Why of each choice. Often, I picture a character looking a particular way or owning a particular car/home, then when I start journaling (in their voice), it turns out they aren't who I thought they were.

David Jace said...

I do a whole six weeks of characterization and character development with my writing students. Much of the work is in the form of sheets like this.

Probably the best exercise I do in that block is the "Dicey Characters." I pass out polyhedral dice and a set of charts (a bit like rpg games) and they kids roll their character's traits. Then, they have to make the character makes sense in a page of description/development of those traits.

The kids have the most fun, and I get some of the best characters. Now I know why!

My charts:

Unknown said...

I often find the really detailed character worksheets to be prohibitively detailed. Do I really need to know the contents of their pockets and which fictional high school they attended?

I think your advice of getting down to the "why" of the facts on the sheet is key. I've read that you should have much more backstory than you ever put into the actual story, but I'm not sure I agree.

Jami Gold said...

Great post! "Why" is a great question for many aspects of storytelling. Why is the story starting now? Why is the character doing A and not B? And while I have the "why" answers in the back of my head, I've never thought about it so explicitly before in relation to character worksheets. Thanks!

Meg McNulty said...

I write a lot of fundraising proposals and when I'm training people how to write a case for support, I tell them to ask WHY three times. Why bother with this project? Why is that important? Why?

Asking why repeatedly gets you to the nub of your story and the point of persuasion. I've never thought of it applied to character sheets - that's such a useful tip! And great comments too!

Wes said...

Super advice. It's the why that counts.

I'm trying an experiment in that I've not described my MC except to say he has blonde hair, which would be highly unusual in NM of 1821 and a curious attraction to friends, foes, and lovers. I'm letting potential readers fill in his other physical characteristics. Is this wise? I don't know. Guess I'll find out. But he definitely has desires, motives, and fears.

green_knight said...

Fantasy writer Aliette de Bodard shared her character sheet and that was the first and only one that I found inspiring.

I think the important question isn't just 'why' but 'what does it mean' and most physical characteristics don't make much difference to the characters; they're just shorthand for readers to distinguish them. I tend not to dwell on them unless they make a difference in the characters' lives - being very short or very tall (one asks for help in the supermarket or climbs shelves, the other is asked for help and bangs their head a lot and can't buy clothes and furniture off the shelf)

I find things out about characters by watching them; most walk into my head with a goal and some mannerisms, the rest - including names, habits, and characteristics - comes later. I can't fill in the detailed ones even for most of my main characters until after the book is finished.

Leona said...

I've *heard* of such sheets, but never used them. I'm usually really good at keeping character traits in my head. Although, I sometimes will go back and look.

For me, the harder thing is keeping the "scenes, city, town" parts straight. I even set something in Novemeber, then August, then November (no it wasn't a progression of time. Only about a month or so elapses. lol )

What I need to do is make a "bible" for everything though. I now have too many projects going on...including....

A signed contract for my paranormal romance set on the reservation where I live :D:D HAVE to keep those details straight, including where major scenes happened and who was present LOL

Callie said...

Being a panster, I don't do too much in the way of forms. What I do is once I write the h/h descriptions, I jot them down on my 'characters' page in Word. Then I add character's names and places as I write. So I guess I do the same thing, just after I write, not before. Works for me. The 'why' is usually incorporated in the story as I go along.