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Submitted on
June 11, 2013
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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.


: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
Add a Comment:
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.
neurotype Featured By Owner May 26, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Those types of questionnaires can be great. :nod:
Aquietpoet23 Featured By Owner Apr 21, 2014
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
neurotype Featured By Owner Mar 20, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
:highfive: Good luck.

SA and I did this, too:
ShadowedAcolyte Featured By Owner Jan 15, 2014
TL; DR: you don't like character sheets.
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.
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.
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

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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