If you've been following my Twitter feed, you know I've been trying out character sheets and whining a lot about it. But despite the whining, I have learned a lot from this experience. Sharing Time!
(Oh, for those of you who may not know what a character sheet is, it's essentially a questionnaire/interview about a character. I have been using this one, which is very thorough.)
Because I like to go negative first and finish positively, we'll be starting with Cons and then Pros.
CON: Takes MUCH Longer Than I Anticipated
When I first started, I thought that long character sheet wouldn't take me more than an hour or two. WRONG. My MC's took about 4-5 hours to finish! The secondary characters have been shorter, but still more than an hour.
That's a lot of time just for a character sheet, you know? I keep thinking I could be spending this time writing or outlining or playing Warcraft. Important things like that. And not even half this stuff will make it into the book! It easily feels like a "waste of time."
PRO: Character Revelations
I'll admit it—I've learned things! I already knew a lot about my characters individually, but the most unexpected aspect of this character sheet is how much it's revealed about how my characters relate to each other. Filling it out for my MC's mother, for example, taught me a lot about my MC that I hadn't thought in depth about.
The sheet has also helped me define my characters' key motivations. I feel like I understand better how they're connected, and I hope this will make my rewrite cleaner.
CON: Tedious...Okay, Down Right Boring
Filling out this character sheet four times (with at least four more to go) has not at all been fun. Maybe it's fun for some writers (and if so, lucky!), but I've had to force myself to get through these. It's like filling out doctor forms—you already know most of the information and you're just regurgitating it. Snore.
PRO: Plot Ideas
You know how ideas always show up when you're doing menial things like showers and dishes? Yeah, turns out that happens with character sheets too! I've had several plot ideas arise from the dullness, which I didn't expect to happen when focusing on characters. Maybe I should have known that, but I'm slow sometimes.
CON: Not For First Drafting (in my opinion)
I never filled out character sheets because I thought it was something you were supposed to do before you started writing a book. I'd tried, but I'd stare at the sheet and think, "I don't know! I haven't met them yet!"
If I'd filled out a sheet before I started writing this book, I know I would have gotten it all wrong. I would have just been making up answers. It would be like meeting a guy at the coffee shop and deciding you know everything about him just from one conversation.
What good is that?
The sheet has only been useful because I know my characters already, and this is helping me fill in the gaps/define them more. The character sheet, to me, is about revealing nuances, not creating a character.
PRO: Good Revision Tool
I think from now on I'll be filling out character sheets post rough draft. The extra boost in understanding has shown me where I went off track the first time when I was getting to know my book. And having it all written down will make a nice reference if I ever find myself forgetting.
CON: Still Could Be Wrong
Even knowing my characters so well, I'm aware that I could have gotten things wrong on this sheet. If I try and stick to the sheet, I could mess up my book again. It's not a sure thing, and I think one could risk being TOO faithful to it once you've taken the time to write it all down. I hope that I'll still be open to changes when I start rewriting.
PRO: Looking Outside Your MC
I think especially if you're writing in first person, a character sheet (even a short version) would be very helpful in making your secondary characters more 3-D. I've found I usually see people how my MC sees them when I write in first (which is most of the time), but my MC is often wrong! I learn as my MC learns that people aren't always who they seem. Being more clear on your supporting cast is never a bad thing—they need to be people with their own motives and drive, not just there to serve the MC's story.
PRO: Gets You Thinking
I think the most important thing I've taken away from the character sheet is just how much it's made me THINK. The questions are kind of lame, yes, and sometimes you know immediately the answer. But then you have to think about WHY, and that has been so helpful.
Just like crit partners help you see your book from a different perspective, character sheets seem to do the same thing for me.
If you'll notice, character sheets squeaked out one more Pro than Con, so I'm reluctantly declaring them useful despite being annoying. Further proof that this whole writing thing is, like, work. Dang it. I think I'm going to have to do a whole week on why writing is fun to make up for this concession.