So for some reason or other I was poking around on the web last week and I ran across somebody’s “character worksheet” – basically a fill-in-the-blanks page that started with “name” “age” and “physical description” and then had half a dozen things like “career goals” and “religion” and “deepest fears.” I thought it was both fairly useless and over-the-top, until I found a similar one that was six pages long, with details like “is/isn’t a good kisser” and “favorite breakfast cereal.” By comparison, the first one looked positively restrained.
Looking at them more closely, I get the strong feeling that a few of them were designed by authors who needed a mental reminder of all the aspects of their characters that they could use – not so much a “fill in all these blanks and you’ll have a great character” sort of list, but more of a “do you need to think about this for this character?” list. The rest look as if they were designed by professors who analyzed a bunch of stories and novels and worked backward from what they thought they found there, under the assumption that the writers made it all up before they ever started writing.
I do things that could possibly be called “character sketches,” but they don’t look anything like any of the worksheets or assignments I’ve seen. Mine have the character’s name, who they are, and a couple of paragraphs of background information explaining what they’ve been doing lately and what they’re up to, and that’s about it. No list of “personality quirks” or goals or psychology; no childhood traumas; no physical description, even.
Emilie is an older relative – aunt? – of Everard, the head of the merchant guild. She teaches guild apprentices basic skills like reading and math, and has been doing so for at least two decades. She came up with the system and pushed it through (it was considered very radical when she started it), and is now highly respected for putting it into practice. She never married, but nobody has ever dared connect a scandal with her name; if she has lovers, she’s incredibly discreet about them.
That’s the actual notes about one of the minor characters who may or may not make it into the next book. For a major character, or someone I already know is going to be plot-important, I’ll have three or four paragraphs like that, detailing who they are, where they came from, what they’re up to, why they’re important to the plot, and perhaps what their connection to my protagonist is (or will be). If the character is one of the ones who just walked into my head, and I know a lot of other stuff, I may make a few brief notes about it, but usually that sort of character is memorable enough that I don’t need to write down those details.
As I get into the first draft, and various characters arrive on stage, I make up what they look like and add it to the character notes in an attempt to keep myself from writing that George has blue eyes in Chapter One, and then having George blink his brown eyes at someone in Chapter Ten. Similarly, I add any new background information that I discover and that I am afraid of forgetting.
OK, sometimes I add that kind of thing to my notes. More often, I mention something on the fly, like the antique tea set the heroine’s great-aunt always uses, and then eight or nine chapters later, when I’m working up to the grand finale, I suddenly realize that it would be the perfect way for the villain to try to poison the heroine, and I go scrambling back through all the earlier chapters, looking for the scene where I mentioned the tea set so I can be sure it’s actually in the story and not just something I thought about putting in and then changed my mind about.
But the most important aspects of my characters show up as I am writing about them. Right now, I don’t need to know whether Emilie is still the passionately dedicated teacher she was as a radical young woman, or whether she’s looking for a new challenge now that she’s reached mid-life and her tutoring program is well established; whether she’s devoted mainly to the guild or mainly to her students; whether she’ll side with her nephew or with my heroine if she’s faced with that choice. I’ll find that out when she walks on stage and starts interacting with my other characters, and most especially when she’s faced with a decision.
This is why my plot outlines never last more than a chapter: because until I write the characters, I don’t know them well enough to make an accurate prediction of what they’ll think and how they’ll act, and whenever I’m wrong, it changes the whole direction of the plot.
Which brings me back around to those character worksheets. For me, they’re pretty much useless; I need to know my characters, not just know things about them, and in order to know them, I have to write them. For other writers, worksheets may well be a lot more useful, especially if one views them as a memory-jogging tool rather than a form to fill out.