Linda Maye Adams

Character Worksheets — Not For this Panster!


Washington, DC is supposed to be getting this big snowstorm tonight.  Storms here are weird because usually you can be close to DC and not get much, but twenty miles away they get dumped on.  The only thing we can always guarantee is that the storm will arrive in time for rush hour and make a mess of everything.  But it’s been warm today, and the squirrels came out of their nests to check around for food.

This post is inspired by one over on Anne Allen’s blog, which mentions character worksheets (also called a character profile).  I think the first time I saw one was in a school text book on writing — must have been college, since I don’t think I would have gotten one for the high school creative writing class, but I might have for the Writer’s Roundtable (which was a waste of time to start with).  I don’t remember the title of the book though.  Probably long out of print.

I remember looking at this questionnaire and just going “Meh.” The questions typically range from What are the names of your character’s parents? to What is his/her favorite color?  I just didn’t see how they could be used to create characterization.  I just started writing, tossed the character into the story, and characterization happened.

However, it sometimes turns into a Writing Collective thing.  A writer got extremely angry with me when I just said that character worksheets didn’t work for me.  She declared that the root cause of my writing problems was because of lack of worksheets.

Uh, okay.

What happened to “There is no wrong way to write”?

One of the things that I’ve come to believe is that the worksheets are an outlining tool.  They outline the characters, much in the way an outline outlines a story.   I just don’t connect knowing what a character’s favorite color is to characterization.  It’s how that character reacts to the events in the story.  It’s how they interact in the face of danger, or with other characters.  It’s how they get angry, or frustrated, or what they’re like when they’re happy.  It’s how they react when things don’t go well.  It’s all of that and more.

But I don’t know all of that until I write each scene.  Sometimes I don’t even know the character’s name right away (though that one fixes itself pretty fast.  Typing PLACEHOLDER for the name each time gets a lot annoying very fast).   So stopping to answer questions in a questionnaire ends up being busy work.

I don’t even use a worksheet to keep track of character details to refer to later in the story.  It’s all in the story — why would I need to write it down a second time?  That one I have tried, and it didn’t help me one bit.  It was just additional busywork that wasn’t actual writing.

I create characters like I read: I discover them as I go along.

5 Comments

  1. I think I’m going to have to keep notes on minor characters, so, you know, eye color doesn’t change mid-book, but otherwise. I’ve tried them. And I find even if I answer the questions, I can’t keep to them once I actually start.

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    • I generally don’t refer to details like that more than once. I started out only mentioning them once so I wouldn’t goof them up later in the story (!). However, it turned out it was more than that. The description of another character is what the POV thinks — their opinion. So I was looking for new stuff to say, not just the same stuff.

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  2. I make them up as I go along.

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  3. I care more about my character image than properties like eye color. For example, I’ll pull photos of people from the web and pick the image that best represents my character, then I will build my character based on style. Black, leather jacket and white t-shirt brings images of a 50s style rebel. I wouldn’t have a need to describe anything more. I shouldn’t, at least.

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