I Am Not a Number – Or Collection of Character Traits!

Another slow news day in Jackie land. To NTAI, I’m concentrating on thinking about the iPad which is finally being released in NZ on Friday. And yes, I’m going to get one. I’m such a gadget girl, I can’t help myself. iPad wins over shoes any day in my book.

Anyway, on the writing front, after a great virtual coversation with the talented Lacey, I got to thinking about characters and character sheets. Now, the ed I’m working with sent me quite a good one that provided me with a great starting point. And not just favourite foods and things but questions like; Why is the hero the best person for the heroine? Why is he the worst? What’s good about him? What’s bad? What does the heroine like about him? What doesn’t she like? etc etc. All good material. But there can be a problem with character sheets in that if you’re not careful, you’ll end up with a character who is just a bunch of traits, not an actual person.

For example, you might have given your heroine a shy trait but decided she’s also going to be an actor. Now this may be what you’d plotted out for your story, but would a shy person really choose acting as a profession? And here’s where you have to think deeper – perhaps they would, perhaps she’s very shy and by choosing acting, she’s trying to prove something to herself. What is she trying to prove? Who is she trying to prove it to? How does her shyness impact on the story? In other words, is it part of her character or have you given her that trait because it makes a scene work better?

In essence, every trait you give them is a building block constructing the kind of person they are. And all the building blocks work together, you can’t treat them in isolation. I’ve done the old ‘quick, my heroine needs to be stroppy in this scene’ trick where I suddenly give my previously quiet, shy heroine a ‘take no crap’ trait. And then find that to get her to act like this, I have to add a whole lot of things in order to get the desired response from her. Can you say ‘making my characters move to fit the plot’? 🙂 This is where consistency comes into it because you can’t just add a character trait for one scene and then never have it appear again. For the shy heroine, you have to ask yourself is shyness part of who she is? Is it central to the story? Is it part of what she needs to change about herself? Is it really necessary for her to be shy?

I think that while character sheets are a good place to start, there comes a time when you need to look at all the traits, likes/dislikes, family background etc, and figure how they all work together in order to make this person come alive. Have you added things just for the sake of it? How will an impatient heroine act? Does this affect your story? How has her impatience affected her life? Is her impatience a flaw that may cost her the hero? Does she overcome it or learn to deal with it? Or have you just added it so she catches the bus an hour earlier and so meets the hero?

Anyway, the character sheets have been great in that they get me thinking about the character before I start writing and now I’m much better at constructing an actual person with a background instead of the cardboard cutouts I used write. But now I don’t use them so much as writing a brief bio that I add to as I get to know the character better. Anyone else find them useful?

BTW: If you’re wanting more insight into conflict, Kate Walker is doing a great Q&A on her blog.

18 thoughts on “I Am Not a Number – Or Collection of Character Traits!”

  1. Just to point out that some actors are very shy. Acting is a shy person’s revenge. They are not being themselves but are being someone else. Extroverts can more problems because they already comfortable in their own skin. I forget which movie actress said that she got into acting because she could use someone else’s voice and therefore didn’t stutter.
    But I do agree in the importance of the why behind things as they are rarely striaght forward.

  2. Michelle – yes, indeed! I was just pointing out – probably badly! – that someone’s traits will affect aspects of their lives, including the job that they do. I was guilty of it, randomly assigning someone a job without ever thinking about why they may have chosen that career path. The shy person could indeed be an actor but thinking about why they may have chosen that as a profession makes the character seem that much more real.

  3. Question sheets? Wow. Any chance you might tell us more of the questions on the question sheet? Was it helpful, would you say, for nudging your characters into the right decisions for them?

    I always worry that kind of detailed planning and analysis will be restrictive on me as a writer.

    Is that a fair thing to worry about? Or should I be planning everything like crazy?

  4. I’ve tried and tried and tried to use the character sheets but I just can’t! Maybe that’s why I’m not getting anywhere – LOL! Great, thought-provoking post as usual!

  5. As always you have such great things to say about the writing process. I always leave here thinking deeper about my own writing.

    I’ve tried character sheets, but find my characters surprise me with traits as I write them. I have, however, worked a lot with Enneagrams and Archetypes.

    I just got my iPad last week and it’s AMAZING. I’m totally in love. Make sure you get the 3G so you can connect everywhere.

    Good luck with your sub. I hope you hear good news soon!

  6. Character sheets….are awesome I’m sure…but the one time I used an Official One was on the MS that got ‘set aside’ at the proposal stage. Eesh.

    But you’re very right, Jackie. It’s easy to assign your character traits so that you can make them do what they want when really, as Michelle pointed out, it’s more complex! A shy character can be an actor…but maybe she doesn’t come accross as shy. But underneath this glossy, confident exterior is a woman who has a wealth of insecurities. And now we have a real person. 😀

  7. Caroline – thanks!

    Jane – they were pretty much just a sheet with questions like name, age, family background, etc, etc. List three strengths, three weaknesses, who is the worst person for them to fall in love with, etc, etc. It was useful because it gave me a point from which to start thinking about character and how the h/h might be right for each other while at the same time being worst possible match. It’s quite basic and not restrictive, you can still get to know your characters as you write – which is what I do. But I have found that if I think about their characters beforehand, I do get a better story.

    Rach – m’dear, I don’t think using or not using makes any difference. I don’t use them now because now I know I need to develop my characters first.

    Cat – yep, I’m the same. I like to give myself some leeway when I write because traits often pop up while I’m writing. But I do have to ask myself whether it’s something this person would actually have or whether I’ve added it to smooth the scene.
    Yay for iPads! And let us not speak of the sub. Still waiting.

  8. You can have most any character do any job I think. That is the way real life works and why we have so many archetypes working in all the different professions. It is motivating them to have chosen that career that matters. They can do something that isnt part of their archetype, but it has to be well-motivated and is normally a turning point.

    I use a character sheet of sorts because it helps me to sort out the conflict between hero and heroine and their inner conflicts. It also helps me to work out why they react in different ways when faced with a challenge.

    In saying that, I know a lot of fantastic published writers that dont use them, at least not on paper. But they do seem to have a very clear sense of who their hero and heroine are from the get go.

    And the i-pad…I can just dream

  9. I found character sheets helpful at first but for my last MS I think they contributed to the disaster it has become lol. Mine are quite long and include everything from eye colour, car type etc to family background and how they may contribute to the story as well as deeper questions contributing to internal and external conflict. This is perhaps an example of too much planning through which you lose the organic nature of your characters. Sometimes throwing away your character notes can be quite liberating. Thanks Jackie!

  10. Lacey – I reckon all that planning can be a good thing as long as it all converges into a whole, if that makes sense. Probably not. 🙂 Anyway, yeah, the possbility of losing the organic nature of your characters nicely sums that up. Thanks right back, Lacey!

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