I have recently discovered the value of the character sheet.
Have I done them before?
Have I done them well?
Ehhhhhh. Hubris, thy name is young writer.
But enough of these one-line paragraphs. Let’s get into the meat of this post, starting with a little background.
The first draft of Machine was finished in late 2009. Back then, I was still in high school and confident that I’d be breaking out onto the world stage of writing within the next year or two. I had a charming hero, his enigmatic love interest, and his angsty, tortured partner to stir up conflict. What more could a novel need?
Well, as it turns out, a lot. Like a world that had more than glancing work put into its creation, a focused plot that had been thoroughly checked for holes and, as we’ll focus on in this post, characters that had been fleshed out, the worst offender (or perhaps victim) of this last one being Eyna (said love interest), who up until a couple months ago, didn’t even have a last name.
Why was she so bad, you might ask? What made her so flimsy when viewed with a critical eye? Well, as it happens, the very same mystery that I so loved to give her.
“You don’t need to know that,” I’d complain whenever readers asked a question (sorry Mom).
“She just does,” was my battle cry.
If you’ve been in this business any amount of time, you can tell that this was not a good approach. And consistently, readers knew. Sure I had ways to explain it away, ways of thinking about her that made sense to me, but looking back now, I realize that they were simply romantic notions of what I wanted her to be, nothing nearly so sturdy as to support a human life. And, even if a reader isn’t supposed to know something, the author should, and needs to know (sorry, Mom). I’ll give you that one for free.
Which brings me to now, where, as with most things Machine related, I’ve really started to put in the work, starting with, for Eyna, a character sheet.
I use a modified version of the Epiguide one found here, and it’s been really useful so far. Some of its most noticeable benefits have included:
- Forcing me to create backstory in areas I wouldn’t normally consider
- Forcing me to nail down the key backstory elements I do consider, including timelines, events, and effects
- Helping me understand why characters are the way they are through past events, family, and habits
This has been particularly useful as I consider my rewrite. For example, in the old version of Machine, Eyna secretly does return Rick’s affections, a fact that doesn’t become apparent until later in the book. It is for this reason that she chooses to go along with the group as they head out on their adventure.
Now, knowing a little bit more about her (and after feedback), I’m not sure that still makes sense. I’ll probably have to come up with an entirely different reason for her to join the group. Maybe she won’t even have known Rick before at all. But, because I’ll be working from a character sheet, with a character instead of some fluffy photoshop piece, I’ll actually know why she goes with, she’ll have real reasons, and my book will be stronger as a result.
And, as a bonus, making character sheets is simply fun.
Working with my modified version of the above guide (mine having just a few added questions specific to my genre/book/plot tracking purposes), it takes a little more than an hour to complete one sheet, allowing that I might skip a couple questions here or there to finish later. By the end of that hour, I’m usually pretty mentally tired (I think the most I’ve been able to do in one go was one and a half sheets, and that with a bit of a soup brain at the end), but I’ve learned loads about my characters that I didn’t know before.
For example, Eyna, my formerly enigmatic love interest, loves chemistry.
Axle, the grumpy antagonist within the group, likes crosswords.
Thade likes sculpting. Fel enjoys fashion. Noss has a father that she worries about a bit much.
All of these things have been surprises. None of them would have come up within the course of the book itself.
Doing character sheets is a blast, and it will give you a better book (to say nothing of more fodder to pull from as you’re looking to make your plot sing). If you’re a pantser like me, you should make them at least after your first draft, and, if you’re a plotter, probably before.
So hello, Miss Eyna. It’s been a pleasure to meet you.
How do you approach character development in your work or organize your other creative projects? Have you ever had experience with characters suddenly changing or growing as a result? What did you learn? Tell me in the comments below, and if you liked this post, feel free to follow my blog or any of my other pages using the links above. Happy New Year!