Character Sheets Don’t Work & Other Brainstorming Problems

Or maybe they just don’t work for me.

If you spend any time on Pinterest or Tumblr, there are tons of character sheets and questionnaires floating around that should, in theory, better help you understand your characters, and thus do a better job of writing their story or their perspective.

But I find that these just don’t work for me, and I wanted to know if I’m the only one. Because I see a lot of them, of many varieties, and I know there are a lot of writers who use them.

I’ve been writing for many a year so I’ve tried to fill them out many times before, and I always find they distance me from the characters rather than help me get to know them, which can be incredibly frustrating. I’ve tried a few, hoping that I’d find one that would help me ‘click’ with a character, but I haven’t found one yet. So I’m starting to think it’s the concept as a whole that just doesn’t mesh with my method of brainstorming.

At the moment I’m writing a character who will feature in multiple short stories, and I’m finding as I edit the first of them that I need to go a little deeper with his character. I keep wanting to use a character sheet, but I also know that it won’t have the desired effect. If anything, it’ll feel like a step back from learning more about my character, and I kind of wanted to explore why.

Overly Clinical

I think this is my biggest problem with a character sheet – it breaks them down into stats and raw data. Height, weight, hair colour. Likes and dislikes. Fears and Goals. All necessary things, but it doesn’t really tell me what I need to know.

You can write down all the personality traits you want but they don’t really have any meaning like that. A lot of people can be outgoing, but there are different levels to it. There is a spectrum that I don’t think a lot of character sheets are built to accommodate.

It’s a show versus tell scenario – I’m trying to tell myself they are this way, but what I need to do is show myself why they are. I don’t want to read (or write) that a character is loyal, perceptive and outgoing. I want to see how loyal they are and to whom, what sort of things they notice, and how outgoing they like to be. Biological data is fine. Maybe even necessary to have cataloged somewhere so you can refer to it, but a personality is a fluid thing. I just don’t want to write out a bunch of descriptive words for it.

Can They Be Too Prescriptive?

Maybe I’m overthinking this, but I do find that filling out questionnaires and sheets is similar to putting a character in a box and assigning them a role and very specific traits. You have to have x, y, and z. You have to fear this and like that. It can be especially tricky if they’re the goofy side-kick or the love interest. Instead of revealing the character traits through writing or some other means of getting to know them, you give them characteristics you want them to have. Or characteristics that you think they should have, based on the role they are expected to fill. At least, that is how it has always felt for me. And I just don’t like writing a character that two dimensional.

I guess I can’t connect with a character through a list of information about them. And I need them to feel like real people if I’m going to write them authentically.

How I Brainstorm Characters

This might sound backwards, but I just start writing, sometimes with no direction. I pool together what I do know (because I usually know at least something) and just start asking questions and answering in paragraphs. It’s almost like free-writing. I let one thought lead into the next and explore the character in that way.

Or, I simply jump in and start writing a draft. It leads to a lot more backtracking and editing, but it’s definitely the most direct way of getting to know a character. You can kind of tell when you go back and reread if something feels out of character. It’s almost like a sixth sense.

It’s definitely not the most elegant of solutions but it’s what works for me.

You may have heard of the iceberg metaphor when it comes to worldbuilding, but I think you can apply it to how you understand your characters, too. You’re only going to know a little bit about who they are, but you should get the sense that there is more to them that you just can’t see. Because that’s how people are. You can hear what they say and see what they do, but you don’t really know what’s going on in their head. But if you’re around them long enough, you might begin to pick up some patterns.

The Verdict

Of course, if you prefer character sheets, don’t let me stop you from using them. I realize that I’m ragging on them pretty strongly here, but I think these are just some of the reasons why they stopped working for me. That might not be the case for you.

And I think they can be incredibly useful at offering guidance to new writers who aren’t sure how to develop their characters. Some of these character sheets are incredibly comprehensive, and if you’ve never tried one, then give it shot. They might be exactly what you needed.

They just don’t work for me.

Let’s Chat!

Anyway, that’s all I have to say about that. Was there a point to this post? I don’t really know. I guess I’m just frustrated that I can’t use character sheets as effectively as others. I’d love to know if you use character sheets to better get to know your characters or if you have the same struggles that I do! Let me know how you feel about character sheets in the comments below!

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2 Comments

  1. I like them a lot. I usually don’t start with character sheets. I character map on scrap paper to start, but then finding a good character sheet is a way to get me to think about details I hadn’t considered. You can always try creating your own character sheets if the premade ones you find online aren’t doing it for you. Or just skip it. There’s nothing to say you have to create your characters in any specific way.
    I like to plan out my characters in a lot of detail, so that I don’t accidentally default to giving them my traits.
    Plus, you can always change stuff as you write, if you decide a certain trait doesn’t fit the character any more. It only boxes you in if you let it. Making a plan doesn’t mean anything is set in stone.
    But hey, if they don’t work for you, there are lots of different ways to plan characters 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The sad part is that I have tried to make my own, and several times at that. I think as soon as I start looking at categories to fill in, the magic goes away. 😓 They were definitely useful when I first started writing and had no idea how to approach character development, but somewhere along the line they stopped working for me.

      Do you have one character sheet you like to use or do you change it up based on the character/project?

      Like

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