Character Sheets

Timben

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Are Character Sheets important to a story? I have written several bios for characters in my current story. I was just curious if they were necessary for a novel.
 

Dan Jones

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Very little is strictly necessary, I'd say. You'll find that some people here will swear by character sheets and wouldn't do without them, and others never use them. There's no right answer but you should try it and see if it works for you.

FWIW I don't tend to use them. I prefer to have a roughly sketched outline of a character's arc but don't go into the metadata of what a character's likes, dislikes, favourite foods are, etc.
 

DLCroix

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Yes, but as long as the novel itself creates those biographical data; otherwise you run the risk of adapting the story to the characters and not the other way around. For me the characters must be functional according to the story, they are not there for anything else. Then a biography or notes about a character may be born, details that you know you should include at some point but not now, you do it as a reminder. This becomes very clear, for example, in a second part, where you already realize that you must make the following coincide with what you said before about a certain character. :ninja:
 

Kerrybuchanan

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I do retrospective character sheets because my memory is so bad. I let the characters develop in response to whatever he’ll I’ve put them through, then I write down any relevant details, e.g. left handed, or youngest of seven kids, or hates clowns, or has facial scar from knife wound received in book 1, etc.
 

Timben

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I brought this up because I was told for my current story, that I needed one. That was the reason I asked. Thank you for explaining it to me.
 

Phyrebrat

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Half the time I don’t know the colour of my characters’ hair. I’ve not seen a completed character sheet.

My approach tends to be notes such as ‘the kind of person who pushes through a queue.’ etc. I think I can divine the character pretty well based on things they do in society. If their job or demographic is stated, then that’ll inform their behaviour too.

Or are you not asking about behaviour? If you mean what they look like I’m quite unable to help ;) (apart from Lazarus Rocke in my last story who was based on Ricky Whittle’s look on AG because a) his ethnicity was important and b) I’m a Pervy swooner every time I see him :eek: )

I do think though, that a character’s look is a redundant use of words if it’s not germane to the story. Let the reader do the work for you. I might mention hair colour and then let the reader assume the rest themselves.
 

Jo Zebedee

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I do retrospective character sheets because my memory is so bad. I let the characters develop in response to whatever he’ll I’ve put them through, then I write down any relevant details, e.g. left handed, or youngest of seven kids, or hates clowns, or has facial scar from knife wound received in book 1, etc.
My current work has lots of X for names meaning I’ll have to go off and read book one to remind myself of everyone.
 

Steve Harrison

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I don't have characters - maybe a general description like 'man, 30s' - until I start writing and they all turn up and show me who they are. I find that if I have too much detail about any aspect of a novel, I get fixated and find it hard to move out of the those parameters.

I've just written the spec pilot episode for a TV version of my first novel and I'm writing detailed character bios for the series bible, which has been illuminating, but has also reinforced my first point.
 

Astro Pen

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No. They define themselves for the course of writing and I carry everything in a well defined cats cradle of memory, which holds up fine for the duration.
I generally avoid physical description beyond the basic because it leaves my reader space to put their own stamp on the characters.

This is a fundamental difference between reading a book and watching a movie.
In a book you imagine everything, in a movie you imagine nothing.
 
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The Judge

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I brought this up because I was told for my current story, that I needed one. That was the reason I asked.
Told by whom? Why? Were you making mistakes such as giving someone a scar on his left cheek and then two chapters on it's on his right cheek?

If the descriptions and backstory/personal history you give for a character are inconsistent, then yes, a crib sheet would be useful for you to avoid making continuity errors, though it does depend on you then checking the sheet every time you write something. Otherwise, although some people find them useful and might recommend them as being helpful, especially if one's memory isn't as reliable as it once was, I'm at a loss to understand why anyone would say they are "needed".
 

Susan Boulton

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No. Is the simple answer. If you find it useful to keep track of your characters traits, looks, behaviour etc, then do them. Any mistakes can and will be picked up during editing. The main thing is to get your story down.

On a side note; so many folks say you must do this or that, most of what they say are not rules, but just how they work, or thoughts on how they think you should write. To me the most important thing is to get your story down, from beginning to end. It doesn't matter if the grammar sucks, or there are plot holes, bad description, etc. The important thing is to get your idea down. Then you start editing, going through the manuscript with a fine toothcomb. Sorting out everything you think needs doing.

Remember it is your story. Advice is often helpful, but it can destroy your confidence to complete a story.
 
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Toby Frost

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Unfortunately, like so much of writing, the answer is: if it works for you then great, but don't feel by any means that it's something that you ought to do. If you're making continuity errors, it's worth making a few notes so that you don't contradict yourself. Otherwise, I wouldn't worry too much.

I also agree that details like hair colour, eye colour and so on don't really matter until something definitely does make them matter. There are quite a few characters in books whose function is far more important than their appearance, or who have one defining physical trait that really matters (Kynes' blue eyes in Dune suggest that he's gone native, but the other details don't matter much).
 

CupofJoe

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I used to use them all the time. I think it was a hangover from playing RPGs and made me feel safe. But I found that by the time I had attempted to answer the 30/55/80/120 questions you must know about your character.... I had got bored with them and the work stalled. Most likely for good. Now I use a much simpler aide-memoire with all the characters in one document. Just the details that might be useful later on or things I don't want to forget.
 

Toby Frost

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I think those "questions about your character" things are a real waste of time, for writing and also for gaming (at least, for me). I find that unless there is some very important issue about your character that will be explored in the book (a crippling fear of water caused by the hero's father drowning, which the hero must overcome in the course of the story, or a private eye whose artificial leg slows him down), it's fine to present him as "that sort of person", even when the kind of person is "capable adventuring guy".
 

tinkerdan

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It is helpful to know a few things about your characters before you start. But it is most fun to discover them as you go along. I have a bit of both happening in my writing and it is interesting how much you find out about a character when they are right in the middle of things.

As far as the question or advice on this--I find when something like that comes up in the critique it often indicates that there is something in the writing that that person doesn't like--however, they haven't figured out just what it is so they start thrashing around looking for snarks.
 

Timben

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Told by whom? Why? Were you making mistakes such as giving someone a scar on his left cheek and then two chapters on it's on his right cheek?

If the descriptions and backstory/personal history you give for a character are inconsistent, then yes, a crib sheet would be useful for you to avoid making continuity errors, though it does depend on you then checking the sheet every time you write something. Otherwise, although some people find them useful and might recommend them as being helpful, especially if one's memory isn't as reliable as it once was, I'm at a loss to understand why anyone would say they are "needed".
I was told by a ghostwriter that I needed character sheets. As for why I don't recall.
 

The Judge

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I have to say I'm a little confused here. If you've been in touch with a ghostwriter, did you not fully understand what that meant in terms of what would be required? A ghostwriter doesn't just conjure up the whole story him/herself -- it would be based on your concepts, including not only your thoughts on the plot but your ideas for the characters. In which case I can quite see why the ghostwriter would want to know what you think the characters look like and what their background/history would be, ie the details on a character sheet, to ensure they're written according to your brief.

That doesn't mean you need to have character sheets if you're writing the novel yourself.
 

Timben

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I have to say I'm a little confused here. If you've been in touch with a ghostwriter, did you not fully understand what that meant in terms of what would be required? A ghostwriter doesn't just conjure up the whole story him/herself -- it would be based on your concepts, including not only your thoughts on the plot but your ideas for the characters. In which case I can quite see why the ghostwriter would want to know what you think the characters look like and what their background/history would be, ie the details on a character sheet, to ensure they're written according to your brief.

That doesn't mean you need to have character sheets if you're writing the novel yourself.
She was wanting $30 an hour. Which I reckon is considered quite reasonable. But I can not afford a ghostwriter. My mistake to begin with. But she recommends I do a character sheet to flesh out the characters. At least that was my understanding.
 

Margaret Note Spelling

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In a book you imagine everything, in a movie you imagine nothing.
I strongly disagree, actually. :) There's a difference, yes, but it mainly lies in what you're forced to imagine--in a book, you're imagining the appearances and details of a scene and setting, all the things that the writer decided not to spell out in detail because it would clutter up the actual story. In a movie, what you're imagining will be character thought and feeling, for all the characters who appear--all the details about a character's experience that can be only shown and not, as is so easy in books, be told. In a book you get to ride along with a character's interior thoughts and feelings all the way through what they do, knowing exactly what they're going through if the writer so chooses. In a movie, there is suddenly room left for ambiguity, for imagining and interpreting their feelings the same way we do in real life--for a character's genuine personality to be interpreted much more broadly, or kept more mysterious, than in a book, and for two different viewers to get two legitimately different opinions of a person out of the same scene or piece of action. To, in exactly the same way as with appearance, put their own stamp on the characters. It requires just as much personal imagination as hard, concrete details do, which honestly don't change much about the book anyway. I believe any kind of storytelling will force imagination from the viewer, simply because stories as a whole are far too complex for any author to spell out everything. I continually find myself far more inspired, writing-wise, by a film which has left a lot unsaid but hinted at much, than by a book which gave me all the detail I could ever want. I can enjoy both, but I could never say that one leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination while the other leaves everything.

And even on top of that, movies are often forced to work within a much more concise format than books, which are allowed to sprawl--as a writer, I love being allowed to sprawl, but as a movie-viewer, I also enjoy being left to imagine for myself all the scenes in the unfilmed gaps, the events that the filmmakers simply referred to or left unsaid. Less is often more, and for good or ill, films make use of that far more than books.

I'm not ranting, I swear. :p I just love the unique storytelling format of movies, and television even further. They're all completely legitimate storytelling forms, and it's because of the extra imagination required that I enjoy them.

Bringing it back on topic, though, I have no formula for what's important for me to note down about my characters--I pretty much just write everything down, freeform, the moment I think of it, because I've forgotten stuff before and it's the worst feeling in the world to forget anything about my characters. That's very important for me, and if you're as forgetful as I am, I recommend start writing down your notes about your characters immediately.

I do, however, tend to note down things more related to the character's personality and arc and quirks than their physical appearance or food likes/dislikes. What's most important to remember are the things that, to you, define the character, which will be different for every character and often doesn't include the color of their hair or where they went to school. Of course, biographical data such as whether they had siblings, or if anything unusual happened regarding their birth family, are vastly more likely to be important to the shape of their character now. But what they look like, I don't try to consciously pin down. I do often end up with a vague picture in my head anyway, whereupon I write that down so I won't forget it, but it's rarely anything that requires more than a sentence or a half-sentence to mention. As a format, I find the idea of character sheets a little constricting for full established characters, but in concept I think they're important. And formulated character sheets may well be a very good place to start with new/minor characters.
 
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Susan Boulton

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Ghostwriter, or writing for a franchise, i.e an officially sanctioned , Star Trek, Star Wars book etc totally different kettle of fish.

First off, ghostwriters, these normally work closely with a person to write their book, re interviews, research etc, normally these are memoirs or autobiographies, sometimes fiction, but less so. For fiction I assume you would need to provide a "bible." (See below.)

Working for a franchise; I know a few writers, who besides writing their own stories write stories set in the "Star Trek, Star Wars universe"

I know one lady who has won awards for her novels set in the Star Trek Deep Space Nine setting. She is given what is called a "bible." It contains character details, place details, etc. Also a range of what a character can do and how they can behave. Sometimes this is very loose, sometimes quite tight. She has found the more she has written for the franchise, the more leeway with character and story she has been given.
 

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