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The Problem With Character Sheets

Tue Jun 11, 2013, 6:00 AM


Alright, there are some pretty awesome character sheets out there. I don't personally use them, but I've seen others make them work. I'm not here to dispute the fact that they've got some utility, but I am here to point out one big problem with relying on a list of traits—which is generally how character sheets present these things—to define your character.

(Note: This also applies to Mary Sue tests. 'Not a Mary Sue' just means your character isn't a perfect storm of coincidence. It has nothing to do with likeability or even believability. <insert dictator here> isn't a Mary Sue, either.)

  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses
  • Quirks

I think this approach is, if it's the only approach you take to figuring out a character, a really bad idea.

Take a moment to think about your best friend. What's their favorite food? What are they good at, and what are things they do that make you Google good places to dump a body?

While you were coming up with answers to these totally not intrusive questions, did you really just pull the information from some mental dossier, or did you picture past situations where these things have come up? (Anyone who watches 'Supernatural' knows about Dean and pie.)



The people you know aren't a list of traits or neatly checked boxes on a sheet of paper. They're an aggregation of moments and scenes, things they've told you and things you've seen them do. (Especially seen. People grossly overestimate how much data words actually offer. Go outside, guys.)

Let's take a simple trait like 'outgoing.' Being outgoing could mean working in a field that involves a lot of face time, enjoying parties, talking to random people on the train. But a college professor probably doesn't spend weekends half-conscious in a puddle of vomit or make polite smiling faces at every pleb on the bus. A 26-year-old high school teacher, on the other hand, would totally go out more—but what about during finals week when she's got to get all those grades in? What about a high school teacher with war PTSD, or a college professor who's, like, super chill dude?

Traits on a page don't say much about behavior, which is what happens in scenes, also known as those things your readers will actually be reading. Reducing someone to a series of flaws/strengths/quirks overlooks the fact that people don't behave consistently.

Environmental factors FTW, not to mention state of mind at the time. Do you behave the same way at work, home, and when you're out with friends? Would your boss list the same strengths and weaknesses in your personality as your sibling or your best friend?

If you're going to use character sheets, don't let them be the be-all-end-all of how you create or develop your characters.


What am I supposed to do now that you've ruined everything?!


Seriously, you can still use character sheets to track information. :P

Visualize these traits. A lot of people write scenes for practice, which is a fantastic way of figuring out a character. I base all characters off aspects from my own real life and interactions. When that's impossible (e.g. murderers), I look at TV shows, movies, and case studies, in particular Oliver Sacks' work for the weirder stuff. I always start with a mental picture.

Mental pictures are good.

See a person within that demographic act out a situation, and then make it happen on paper. Pull and twist like taffy so you've got exaggerations in the right places, and bam, motherfucker! (As a cross between Emeril Lagasse and Samuel L. Jackson would say.)

When you're writing a character, you need to consider reasons that might pull them one way or the other, factors that will draw out certain traits and weaken others (chew that taffy). All actions result from some type of motivation, anything ranging from your money to your life to your sanity. (Motivation runs a wide gamut. My favorite motivation for characters is trying to escape the inevitable misery of the plot.)

I find that this method inevitably includes character development (not necessarily positive or progressive). The person you started with hasn't had those experiences during the plot to sway them one way or another. Once they have, they're going to behave differently...or the reader will see their actions differently because of new information.

The best way to make a character a convincing person is to have them be a person.

:peace:



:iconcrliterature: :iconprojecteducate:

I've been linked to some other great resources! If you have more please share. :D
A Guide to Useful Character Sheets
Character Questionnaire

I guess this is getting some attention, so now is a good time to pimp three ongoing contests at #CRLiterature!
:bulletpink: Short vs. Long - a Project Educate Story Planning Week contest!
:bulletpink: The Great Cake and pie Debate
:bulletpink: My Own Worst Enemy
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:iconravebloodnymph:
ravebloodnymph Featured By Owner Sep 20, 2014
This is honestly a REALLY good "review" of character sheets. You've got some great points. Personally one of my favorite things to do for character creation is look up those super LONG questionnaire things, like the ones you get tagged in for dA journals or asks on Tumblr and answer them like you would if you were the character. It helps to better understand how the character would react to different situations and they become a little more realistic.

But I also almost always use character sheets just as a way of figuring out my character for the first time. Like a little introduction, so to speak.
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Sep 23, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Thank you, and certainly that can be great for getting into the character's head :nod:

I think that's reasonable, especially if you're not great at visualization. I mean, if you're writing a character that is a significantly different height from you, there will be actual differences in how they react to, say, an airplane seat.
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:iconsoulcrystal214:
I often use character sheets just to thrash out a general idea for an rp character, and then let the character truly take form on his/her own through some test rps with some friends. And often enough, I randomly create a character in an rp, and don't even use a character sheet until later. For me, character sheets are just something to keep track of stuff with, and to have fun with. XD But all in all, I agree that character sheets shouldn't be the 'be all end all' when it comes to making a character.

Also: All the character sheets I use ask questions. None of the character sheets I use require checking boxes (which I find boring after a while). I do like running my characters through Mary Sue tests, but those are, again, just for fun. XD
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Aug 10, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
This one's more for writing stories than RP - I don't know enough about RP to really speak to it :B
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:iconsoulcrystal214:
SoulCrystal214 Featured By Owner Aug 12, 2014
RPs, or roleplays, are really just stories that are written with other people, long story short. It's more complicated than that, but that's the gist of it. XD
Reply
:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Aug 13, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
I know what they are, I've just never done one :B salshep.deviantart.com/art/Reh… is useful, I hear.
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:iconsoulcrystal214:
SoulCrystal214 Featured By Owner Aug 19, 2014
Ah... Silly me, then. XD
Thanks!
Reply
:iconangiee45:
angiee45 Featured By Owner May 26, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
This is not the first time I have heard of character sheets or something similar. When I was in college we used something similar that was more open ended. It was not just checking off boxes. It asked you questions about a character that forced you to think about them in context. One question was something like what is your character's reputation among peers? That is the kind of question that forces you to think about your character and how of the people see them. I like that much better than just checking boxes. I actually still have a copy of it that I use.
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner May 26, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Those types of questionnaires can be great. :nod:
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:iconaquietpoet23:
Aquietpoet23 Featured By Owner Apr 21, 2014
supernatural!
Reply
:icongreg-vs-theworld:
Greg-vs-TheWorld Featured By Owner Mar 20, 2014  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
This go me thinking. I'm currently doing character sheets for my characters. They seem like real personalities, but I feel like all the time and thought gone into them is in vain. I spend maybe 2 hours a day, like this said, but I'm feeling like reserves isn't getting anywhere. After reading this, I probably need a new approach.

Total Drama Characters are practically living stereotypes, and I've been planning my series since November 2013. I've grown to like them, but I'd like it to get noticed more. This proves it doesn't just rely on getting them into as many groups as possible, but the quality of WHO they are. I did mine up as a book/straight-from-the-show interpretation.
This inspired me
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Mar 20, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
:highfive: Good luck.

SA and I did this, too: fav.me/d681ylt
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:iconshadowedacolyte:
ShadowedAcolyte Featured By Owner Jan 15, 2014
TL; DR: you don't like character sheets.
Reply
:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jan 16, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
It's in the title u: the tl;dr is I want to bang Jensen Ackles.
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:iconlupizora:
Lupizora Featured By Owner Nov 29, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
Thank you!!! :iconletmehugyouplz: 
All this time I was looking at character sheets and was like "How can I put that kind of information in this, when all I have in my head are scenes of my characters interacting?". Phew, I'm not weird after all. That's a relief... 

Well my characters tend to interfere with my thought process sometimes; blurting comments on things I'm looking at, throwing writer's block at me when I mock them, having arguments when I'm trying to concentrate on homework. They sure are a lively bunch.
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:iconllunet1:
Llunet1 Featured By Owner Oct 9, 2013  Student Digital Artist

I totally agree! (Actually, I usually get so bored putting down a bunch of information on those sheets- although it's always very helpful to record things that I don't want to change half-way through the story.. like the character's full name LOL - I have seriously forgotten it once)

 

Although, usually what I like to do, is RP with the character a little bit (in my head, or with my friends) to figure out how the character would act in various situations. For example, I knew what my character would do when she was happy, and how innocent she was. However, when my friend's character made her angry, I actually wasn't sure what she would say in response. So that helped me build her! :D

Reply
:icondragonvampriss:
DragonVampriss Featured By Owner Sep 27, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
i'd say sometimes the best way to test out a character is to RP with them...that way, they can (and often will) be put into situations you never even thought of.  I've done that with a few of my characters and it works out very well.  but, when you don't have people to RP with...writing out situations and scenes (as you suggested) is also really good.

as well, some people forget creating a character isn't a five minutes and your done thing.  it takes time, and a lot of it.  and even if you think you've got it all, i guarantee you, you'll discover new things about your characters from time to time.

people are complex, and characters should be no different.  the best characters are the ones that may take months to even years to fully create and understand.  i guess my best piece of advice it to never lock in everything.  be open to them changing, because real people change all the time.  think about how they'll grow in their situation.  think of how new people will effect them, new experiences as well.
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:iconj-henrique-s:
J-Henrique-S Featured By Owner Jul 2, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Previously I was doing character sheets, but could not create anything impolgante even with chips interesting. Now, I just have the basics in my head and let everything flow according to what happens in the story...
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:iconunetsu:
Unetsu Featured By Owner Jun 28, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
I'm happy you addressed these things, even I caught myself questioning why I wrote down so much unneeded information about my character in the past! I mean, no one needs to know that your character is 6 inches tall and 145lbs, right? Awesome article.
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jun 30, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Glad to hear it :D
Reply
:icondamekage:
damekage Featured By Owner Jun 18, 2013  Student General Artist
To me a character sheet isn't who the character is; but rather more of a collection of things people may want to know if they wish to draw your character.

:iconwhistlinfrog:
Took an approach with his character Lizhp it covers just enough info such as color pallet basic proportions and such of the character with only a little on personality.

I've never made one for any of my characters but that is because my characters are developed within my writing. People who read what I write will get to know my characters and understand their personality. If I do ever make a character sheet it will inform people to go read my writing if they wish to know more about a certain character.
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jun 18, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Thanks for the link, and yeah that's a good use of a sheet. :nod: Although I think that getting art of your characters can eventually become a huge distraction if you start working on this stuff instead of, well, writing.
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:icondamekage:
damekage Featured By Owner Jun 18, 2013  Student General Artist
I agree with you there.
It is one of the reasons I have never made one myself.

However some people don't write they just have characters. For them a character sheet is the only way to share who your character is.

I have other reasons I end up not writing. It's called work/college.
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jun 18, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
:lol: I hear you on that. Didn't do shit in college.
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:iconctang15:
ctang15 Featured By Owner Jun 18, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
I totally agree with this! :D I've always considered doing character sheets, but never got around to it because it feels like I'm answering a questionnaire on my own characters ^^; I prefer depth over detail when it comes to characterization :lol:
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jun 18, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
:highfive:
Reply
:iconwriternicohere:
WriterNicoHere Featured By Owner Jun 16, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
This is good, really.
I use character sheets myself, but I really only make them because I'll forget about them if I don't, plus I think it's fun to do it as well.
Gives me something to do, anyway. XD

But, I agree with you and understand where you're coming from. ^^
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jun 17, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
:D Glad to hear it!
Reply
:iconwriternicohere:
WriterNicoHere Featured By Owner Jun 17, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
:3
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:iconmissdudette:
MissDudette Featured By Owner Jun 13, 2013
Muscular win.
Reply
:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jun 13, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
:D
Reply
:iconthe-monoblos:
The-Monoblos Featured By Owner Jun 13, 2013  Professional Writer
The problem with character sheets is that, some fifty chapters in, you forget all about them and everything just gets a little crazy (I hold my hand up myself on this). I love all my characters but when you create someone with blue eyes, long black hair and any other facial features you can think of they slowly become something entirely different. But this is okay because we write off as character progression for some weird reason.
Now, traits changing I can understand - if a really confident person gets something bad happen (like he gets dumped eg/) then he loses quite a lot of confidence. And remember this: people don't forget what happens to them. Any changes that occur to their traits are almost always lasting effects.

As far as you can say that character creation is personal - YES, VERY! One of my characters from an old novel was based off my girlfriend - & when she asked me to kill that character off I didn't quite know what to do about it all. You see, that's another significant problem with creating characters based around real life - the fact that real life changes so if you want your character to be realistic and reflect real life then you have to keep with the changes in real life as well.
Of course, I can completely understand if you don't want to change certain things - or if you even 'tweak' things. You might want an epitimous character so if the person they're based off becomes less epitimous him/herself you may not want to change the character because if would go against their original concept. Again, this all comes down to what's going on around you personally and keeping up with it all.

Finally, when it comes to a characters 'unique' attitude and looks - just how unique do we feel we need to go?. We all give characters silly facepaint, or a cherokee grin, ten thousand ear piercings, a funny tattoo, two different colour eyes, a glass eye (the list goes on) - but how much do we really need to do this in order to get our characters actually noticed by the audience?
Some identifying features are nice all said and done - but could maybe be done in consideration. When I read a novel it's not the characters facial features that attract me to them - it's their actions, it's what they do - & you don't need to describe someone's looks to do that. Besides - if you say a certain character has blue eyes I might think of a different shade than the next reader - part of the joy of literature if leaving just enough out of a character for the reader to fill in the gaps themselves.
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jun 13, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Haha, a couple of people mentioned that author inconsistency with appearance actually annoys people a fair bit. I wouldn't include it as progression, where have you seen it dumped that way?

Wow, that's got to be a bit of an interesting conversation I know that even happens in TV shows, for instance the director of 'True Blood' changed stuff because the main actors developed a real romance.

We do? :P Okay, I see this more in manga especially, where the characters would be generic except for some crazy scar or logo or something. And agreed, leave it to the imagination!
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:iconthe-monoblos:
The-Monoblos Featured By Owner Jun 14, 2013  Professional Writer
I was critiquing the work of a mutual friend a little while ago - character was originally given as 5'11", ponytail, blue eyes & black hair - the character got a divorce and, somehow, as a part of losing all self confidence he also became blond, 5'7", shaved (which is understandable) with one blue eye & one green. Now, if that's a side effect of getting divorced then I'll remember to split up with my girlfriend 'before' I pop the question!

Oh, it was an interesting conversation. But the point is - it makes you think. It's something that takes you completely by surprise and you don't know what the hell to do about it - thus proving personal characters are a risky business. Of course impersonal characters are also risky - they're risky for the fact that if we get sucked into it too much we'll lose our lives to them and not the real world & actually that goes for entire world builds, not just characters ((I hold my hand up on this one) & thank god I've finally finished mine so I can get onto doing the novels set in it).

Again, I have to hold my hand up on this on as well to some degree - but it's mostly about compromise - if you're going to have a character with unique identifying stuff then you should really be doing something WITH that stuff. For instance I have a character with a long scar, needs it stitched up really quite badly but is afraid of needles. But the point is this: people who know this character know more about his fear of needles than they do his scar itself - giving people the imagine they need and the character the actions he needs to feel 'human'. Still falls into the trap a little but it's a way of trying to get out of it.
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jun 14, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Aaaaah. Hahaha, I've never seen anything like that.

Truths! (Although I don't lose to characters. They're plot devices, hard to get attached when you think of them as gears in a machine :P)

That's a cool way to use that information. But yeah, I only see a reason to have random identifying marks in something illustrated.
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:icon20tourniquet02:
20Tourniquet02 Featured By Owner Jun 13, 2013
I've found this very helpful and saved me a lot of trouble!:dummy:
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jun 13, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Glad to hear it! :D
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:icon20tourniquet02:
20Tourniquet02 Featured By Owner Jun 14, 2013
:meow:
And I thought I was the weird one who didn't put the character's description like a list of things!:XD:
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jun 14, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
:giggle:
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:icon20tourniquet02:
20Tourniquet02 Featured By Owner Jun 14, 2013
I just hope I'll get it on time!:la:
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jun 14, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
:highfive:
Reply
:icon20tourniquet02:
20Tourniquet02 Featured By Owner Jun 14, 2013
:glomp:
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:iconnineveh03:
Nineveh03 Featured By Owner Jun 13, 2013
I applaud you for that, this is so true, all of it. Another nice thing to use, but mostly in case of building a character for RGP or LARP, is to start with a character already exsisting that is similar to yours. You need a sneaky, back-stabbing, stalkish bastard? Start with Peter Pettigrew and build your own character on it :). It works great, when you have to act quickly without pior preparations.
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jun 13, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
That's a great way to act on it :nod: I would try to go with real people more so than authors' characters, just because they sometimes don't flesh out side characters or give them odd mannerisms. Pettigrew worked okay, but I think Rowling exaggerated a number of his traits so he'd fit the rattiness.
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:iconnineveh03:
Nineveh03 Featured By Owner Jun 14, 2013
Oh yes, real people work as well, but I can get more insight into the character's character (lol) while reading the book. People are too complicated to comprehend them as easily, for me at least :D. So I'm stuck with fiction right now.

Damn, I would so love to study psychology! *-*
Reply
:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jun 14, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Haha, fair. Although you should check out creative nonfiction, David Sedaris is pretty well known for his essays (as a start) :)

Why aren't you? There's so many books!
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:iconnineveh03:
Nineveh03 Featured By Owner Jun 14, 2013
Ahahaha, I meant it as going to college :D. But I'm always trying to read something new about psychology now and then, but it's hard to find some more time for that, what between school, art and so many other interests! It's so hard to focus on one thing only, when the world around us is brimming with so many wonderful things *-*

And thank you for your recommendation, I'll definitely check this out!
Reply
:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jun 14, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Haha, right? I set aside Sundays in college for books that weren't coursework, and even that didn't happen more than twice a month :P
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:iconthe-legendary-female:
The-Legendary-Female Featured By Owner Jun 13, 2013  Student Digital Artist
Interesting points! I sometimes like to fill out character development sheets for the fun of it, but it's always well after I've already fleshed out the character and has little to do with actual character development. :B Though sometimes I use them as a reference to help me remember details, or figure out random things about the character I wouldn't have thought of before.
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jun 13, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Sounds good to me :D
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