Building Character: Getting Through A Character Worksheet

People are tricky. Regardless of whether you are plot first or character first, it can be a real challenge trying to nail down a human being, whether you need them to function as a robust and dynamic protagonist or tap dance in and out of a scene as a side character. Everyone has fears and wants and quirks, often at odds with the fears and wants and quirks of those around them. How do you keep track of all of that?

Just like in real life, I guess.

One of the most common resources to tackle this hurdle is to fill out a character worksheet. By answering a set of questions, not only are you creating a go-to resource to consult as you write, but you also have the opportunity to flesh out details you didn’t realize you were missing. This can be an unexpected gold mine for authors; while they might have understood a vague story-level role for their characters (protagonist, sidekick, etc), the rigors of a character worksheet provides them the chance to compare characters’ backgrounds in depth. By finding the points of overlap, a good character worksheet often highlights where characters can connect and conflict with each other and their own problems, which enhances overall depth and relevance.

Nifty, right?

This is my character sheet. You’re welcome, internet. I’ve used several over the years, but I’ve boiled down those into what I’ve found tend to impact my stories the most, agnostic of genre or shifting writing styles.

I don’t believe in long, winding character sheets that span several pages in the course of asking you questions, thus mine is fairly compact. What’s the point of referencing a character sheet if you dread the idea of scanning a 15-page behemoth in order to find the last name of their dead grandma? Another aspect that jumps out at most people is that I lead with the characters story functions and arcs. Isn’t answering all those other questions supposed to help you with all that?

Screw it. Everyone’s last name is Smith now. Works for Utah.

In short, yes and no.

I like to merge character understanding with character purpose. Every character, no matter how fun they are to write or think about, must have a purpose in the larger story. If they don’t impact the story or change in a meaningful way, they shouldn’t exist. By presenting yourself with all the questions about how they do all that, you force yourself to consider why and how they matter before you sell yourself on some awesome detail or quirk that makes it difficult to see the bigger picture in your planning stages.

Why are all my notes “haha vegan butcher lol”?

Operating advice is pretty standard. Read through it before you begin filling it out. Fill it out in any order, but don’t skip any questions. Notice where you get frustrated or impatient to move on– that’s the spots where your character needs more work and that is where you’ll find your most interesting connections to the story.

What are you doing still reading this? Go get ’em, tiger.

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