November 7, 2011

Know Thy Character

I’m writing about her, but do I really know her?

As I sat there, staring at my laptop screen, I thought about one of my novel’s main characters, Grace. She’s an 18-year-old girl going off to college, and—after finding a dusty journal, one that belongs to her mother’s childhood best friend—she discovers that what she’s always been told might not be true. She faces temptations and is forced to figure out what she really believes—namely, did God create rules for us to live by because he’s cruel or because he’s loving?

So, I knew the basic conflicts Grace would have to go through, and I imagined how I would handle them. But that’s just it.

Grace isn’t me. I’m not her. We wouldn’t handle things in exactly the same way.

And therein is one of the most difficult things I’ve discovered with novel writing. I have to figure out my characters. What makes them tick? What are their likes and dislikes? What are their strengths and weaknesses?

It was all a bit overwhelming until I was introduced (by Gail Gaymer Martin, at a recent American Christian Writers conference) to a wonderful little tool known as a character sheet.

A character sheet is essentially a list of questions/prompts that you fill out about your character. It contains everything from physical description (like age, hair/eye color, height/weight, clothing style) to inner conflicts (greatest dream, dark secret, relationships). For an example of a great character sheet, see Gail's site.

I filled out a character sheet for Grace and it helped a lot. Before, she was this nebulous cloud of mystery—I never knew what she was going to do on the next page!

But now? Me and Grace? We’re tight, yo.

Your Turn: Have you ever used a character sheet for your characters? If you’re not a writer (or even if you are!), who is your favorite fictional character and why?


  1. I have never heard of a Character Sheet before, but unknowingly I have been making up something similar so that I can go back and reference information (keep a smaller characters eye color consistent or certain mannerisms consistent, stuff like that).
    Your Character sheet has inspired me to take it a step farther and write down their fears/dreams/etc. Thanks!!!

  2. That's great, TC! I'd not heard of it until recently. I feel like I still have so much to learn! I hope your character sheet helps you gain a better grasp on your characters.

  3. I love character sheets. Found one that I love (and added to) out of Write Away by Elizabeth George.

    I need to get back to your email. Haven't forgotten about you. Intrigued! And I'm glad you and Grace are tight (the character & the gift).
    ~ Wendy

  4. I love character charts. I've found that sometimes they still don't go deep enough for me...I'm working on that in my wip actually. :) But they're a great starting point!

  5. I enjoy getting to know my characters. The more I know about them, their pasts, their likes and dislikes, etc, the better able I am to bring them to life on the page.

  6. Keli,
    I know what you mean, I love learning about my characters. It's like meeting new friends!

    I have a great deal to learn too, in fact I have finished my book and am working on my query in hopes of obtaining an agent and getting published. I find that I learn something everyday. Thank you again for teaching me this, I can't wait to develop my characters more!
    It's great that we all can learn from each other!

  7. Thanks, everyone, for visiting!

    Wendy, no worries. I definitely understand you've had to make it a bigger priority to stay warm in the midst of your power outage than to return my email! I look forward to hearing from you when you get a chance!

    Sarah, I agree. I probably have some details in my head that I don't write down, but they've helped me so far.

    Keli, isn't it fun to "get to know" our characters? Even though we're holding the pen (or they keyboard, rather), sometimes characters seem to take on a life of their own.

    TC, I know what you mean. It's easy to get overwhelmed with all there is to learn, but if we take it one step at a time, we're sure to improve.

  8. I have character sheets, but haven't really used them. I do keep some notes now when I want to remember something about my characters.

    Now that I'm getting deeper into my series, I see a MAJOR need for something more than my sporadic notes. I think it's time for character sheets!

    Thanks for your post, Lindsay!

  9. Cheryl, the idea of character sheets can be overwhelming, but they've definitely helped me to keep things straight! Even things as small as what kind of car they drive and what their job title is. :) Thanks for your comment!