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Thread: Character sheets--how important is it to write these out before starting a novel?

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  1. #1
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    Character sheets--how important is it to write these out before starting a novel?

    So I'm now on step 7 of something called the snowflake method, and step seven wants me to to expand my character descriptions (sketched early in the snowflake, step 3 I think) into full fledged 'just about everything you could ever know about each character.' Like, the religious practices of each, and so on and so forth, really down into minute detail. You are given a week to do step seven.

    Yes, characters are very important, but my instincts tell me that characters should not be cast in stone before the story is written. That they need room to breathe. I know from experience that characters will reveal things to me as I am writing the story, and also, many of my characters carry over from novel #1 so I already know them pretty well.

    I'm skipping ahead to step 8. (I'm a rebel.) But part of my brain (the part that follows recipes exactly) says I should not skip step 7. I told my brain, I said, I'll check in wth other writers and ask them:

    What are the pitfalls of starting a novel with partly formed, but not yet fully fleshed, characters?

    What are the advantages of doing so?
    Last edited by Patty; 07-28-2019 at 12:15 AM.

  2. #2
    practical experience, FTW starrystorm's Avatar
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    I don't use the snowflake method, but in my experience of fleshing out characters beforehand, I find that they always, always change during the story. I mean some hobbies and what they want to be when they grow up may stay the same, but things like personality or how they act around other characters seem to change.
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  3. #3
    I think a big part of it is what kind of genre you're working in, and if your work skews more plot-driven or character-driven.

    If you're working in a realm where things are super-character-driven, then it's good to hash out more of the details ahead of time. Even if you never end up implementing a fraction of what you put down on the character sheets, you automatically know how A will react in a certain circumstance. Putting in the effort for the character sheets will help you stay internally consistent. We've all read the novels where the character's hair or eyes mysteriously change color at some point, or a rules-following do-gooder ends up committing fifteen felonies in the course of an evening's adventure without batting an eye, or the author just happened to lose track of their own sequence of events and makes a dumb mistake (hello, JK Rowling and the Wand Order Mistake). So it's easier to stay consistent when things are written down in greater detail.

    But if things are more plot-driven, then the characters have a little more room to be squishy, and the writer can adapt them to circumstances as necessary. I don't have to figure out someone's favorite cake, or what their major was in undergrad, or whether they were the eldest of six or an only child. You can have a good idea of their rough sketch, in terms of archetype-- someone who's motherly, someone who prioritizes money over relationships, someone who can be convinced to go along with anything-- and you can make a few notes about their appearance-- but you don't have to get too far into the weeds. They move through the plot to make the story happen, rather than dwelling too deeply on their internals regarding what's going on around them while the story happens. And as the story happens, you may discover that instead of having a goal-oriented person from Page 1, it might be a better story if you start off with a slacker who suddenly has an incentive to become goal-oriented, and the slacker's internal evolution is just as compelling as the progress regarding the external plot points. So character elements might be more likely to change, as you discover the needs of the story change.

  4. #4
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    That's a relief.

    See, Brain? I can skip this step. Starry Storm and Lone Star Librarian agree with me.

  5. #5
    practical experience, FTW MaeZe's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Patty View Post
    That's a relief.

    See, Brain? I can skip this step. Starry Storm and Lone Star Librarian agree with me.
    So does MaeZe.

    Obviously some people find them useful. I know my characters and the story well enough they just didn't seem useful to me.

    I think they would be useful if one was developing an initial story. My story was developed before I started writing.


    I will add though, I knew a lot about the story and characters and that meant a lot went into the dead darlings pile and sometimes I'd forget what was in my head was not on the page for the reader, so I'd have to add clarity. And other times I'd get all hung up explaining the world to someone and they'd tune out.
    Last edited by MaeZe; 07-28-2019 at 02:33 AM.
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  6. #6
    practical experience, FTW -Riv-'s Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Patty View Post
    That's a relief.

    See, Brain? I can skip this step. Starry Storm and Lone Star Librarian agree with me.
    I'm in the skip-the-step camp.

  7. #7
    Likes metaphors mixed, not stirred Chris P's Avatar
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    I agree too; they can be skipped. Tell that to Brian or Brain or whoever you need to. I'm writing my seventh novel and have never done one.

    This doesn't mean they are never helpful or that you shouldn't do them. It is always good to have your characters act and speak consistently, and if getting some facts down on paper to refer to later helps then by all means do so.
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  8. #8
    Beastly Fido Roxxsmom's Avatar
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    Not at all important.

    Character sheets are more for RPGs, aren't they?

    Maybe some sort of annotation of relevant details might be handy for minor recurring characters so you don't mix up whatever details matter to the story (like not saying a secondary character is someone's cousin in one scene and saying she's their half sister in another), but I never have any trouble remember important details about protagonists and other major characters. Sometimes things about characters evolve as the story evolves too. So if I decide it's better to have someone be a half sister instead of a cousin, or brown eyes instead of hazel, for their mom to be alive instead of dead, that's great. But I don't tend to forget it if the detail is important enough to mention.

    Maybe some writers find them useful, and if they are to you, go for it. I don't know many writers who use them. Certainly don't let yourself feel pressured into using them by anyone who is trying to sell their "method" to you, though. Writing is a very individualized process and there is no universally right or wrong way to go about doing it.
    Last edited by Roxxsmom; 07-28-2019 at 02:31 AM.
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  9. #9
    THE BLUEBERRY QUEEN OF HADES BenPanced's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Roxxsmom View Post
    Maybe some writers find them useful, and if they are to you, go for it. I don't know many writers who use them. Certainly don't let yourself feel pressured into using them by anyone who is trying to sell their "method" to you, though. Writing is a very individualized process and there is no universally right or wrong way to go about doing it.
    I've been eschewing any advice lately after my preferred method was dismissed and I'm trying to remain in the "if it works for you" camp, rather than dismissing everybody's advice as pointless/useless in retaliation out of spite and anger. (Not here, but in meatspace.) Although, I will qualify any advice with the mention that if it's taking away from your actual writing time and becoming a cover for procrastination, then maybe it's time to take a step back and reevaluate what the heck's going on. YMMV.
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  10. #10
    Beastly Fido Roxxsmom's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by BenPanced View Post
    Although, I will qualify any advice with the mention that if it's taking away from your actual writing time and becoming a cover for procrastination, then maybe it's time to take a step back and reevaluate what the heck's going on. YMMV.
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  11. #11
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    I suspect that if I were trying to hit the ground running on a new story, like I woke up tomorrow determined to write a historical fiction about a young girl in Japan right before WWII, then yeah, character sheets would be very, very important because like Maeze says, it would be an initial 'finding the story' thing.

    The snowflake method guy says these steps are a lot of fun--so it could also be that for people who prefer to think in terms of personality quirks the character sheets might be a way to break up the more onerous parts of the method.

    He also says that done well, and once agented and with an editor, they can stand in lieu of the other stuff. Like, imagine Stephen King pitching a story about a group of people and focused on the people not the plot. King could do it--I bet--and could pitch that without writing the story even. But I'm not King. In case you were wondering.
    Last edited by Patty; 07-28-2019 at 02:35 AM.

  12. #12
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    I suppose the particular format of the notes or outline process doesn't matter so much (or even the order) as long as you have what you need. In my case the plot develops more easily if I've first fleshed out some interesting characters with opposing goals. I need to understand what each character wants, what are the stakes in the scene. YMMV, take it with a grain of salt as I'm still a newbie!
    Last edited by PostHuman; 07-28-2019 at 04:07 AM.

  13. #13
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    Definitely overall the snowflake method is increasing my output on the first draft.That's why skipping a step feels dangerous. The other steps are definitely helping me stay on target to reach the mountaintop not only quicker but with more certainty that this might actually fly.

    Edit: Not having an antagonist (last fall) was a huge impediment to finishing a rough draft, an impediment that I did not recognize at the time.

    Yes, an antagonist and their opposing goal seems important. (Patty furiously adds step 2.5 to her snowflake.)
    Last edited by Patty; 07-28-2019 at 03:59 AM.

  14. #14
    Just Another Lazy Perfectionist Brightdreamer's Avatar
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    I'd keep a notebook on hand to jot down salient points about the character (descriptions, background info if/when it becomes relevant, whether or not they have or acquire significant scars - hey, I can be rough on my characters, so sue me...), but at some point filling out character sheets, like other aspects of worldbuilding, can cross a line between useful preparation and notecard-shuffling procrastination. It's one thing to have a quick-ref cheat sheet so you're less likely to give your MC two birthdates and make them an orphan even though their parents are still alive. When you find yourself plotting the street layout of the home town of their next door neighbor's maternal grandfather twice removed, who isn't even in the story... it's time to set aside the charts and start writing.

    It depends on how you write. Some people need every bit firmly outlined and prepared before they start. Some like to discover things as they go. Either way, things do have a way of skewing from even the most rigid of planning. If you do decide to do character sheets, allow for some wiggle room.

    JMHO...
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  15. #15
    practical experience, FTW screenscope's Avatar
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    My characters don't even appear until after I actually start writing a novel, so in answer to your question, not very important at all (for me).
    Last edited by screenscope; 07-28-2019 at 08:28 AM.
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  16. #16
    Tri-colored Herbs AW Moderator Sage's Avatar
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    If your intention is to follow the snowflake method to see if it works for you, then I wouldn't skip any steps. But at the end of the day, the only method for developing a novel that you need to follow is the one that works for you. If you like to discover your characters as you go, then do it that way. Other people prefer to know their characters inside and out and to develop the plot around them. One final thought is that with any planning method, you always retain the right to develop characters and plot during the course of writing the novel, even if it means throwing your plans out completely.

  17. #17
    Oops I just swallowed a feather SwallowFeather's Avatar
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    Oh, I would skip this step so hard. BUT I would keep those sheets on hand and write stuff down as it came to me--having them seems like a great idea (that I should implement for myself!) but sometimes it can feel unnatural to have timing forced on you, and that's not always good for writing. There may be another time when you get all inspired about details of your characters--or of one character--and go nuts with the character sheets, but if you're having to dredge up details from an unwilling brain, I say it's OK to let your subconscious work on it a bit.

    I've actually turned into an outliner, I know most of how my story will go, and yet my characters come across fresher and more lifelike if I let them just "show up". They flesh themselves out in action and dialogue, and sometimes something will come up in a scene and I'll go "yeees, that is part of that person's life, exactly!" (I just wrote a scene with two new important characters in it without any idea who they were going to be besides "Maquis leader and his wife" and I can definitely tell you a lot more about their personal lives than before I wrote the scene. Doing it the other way around has never felt organic to me.) Once you've written a certain number of choices & actions from a person you start to have a coherent sense of who they are and what they'd (probably) do in a given situation, and at that point you know them better. (Apparently there is neuroscience about this with knowing real people but since I forget 100% of the details I am not that helpful on the subject!) That may be the right point to go back to the minutiae of their character sheets.

    It's letting your subconscious do its share of the work, really. It's the one that "knows" people rather than just knowing info about them, and that's incredibly important.
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  18. #18
    vacuous eyes, will bark at shadows Norman Mjadwesch's Avatar
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    For me it depends upon who each character is. Some of my characters have been based upon people I know so no notes are needed at all. I just ask myself, If this person was confronted with this situation, how do I think theyd respond?

    Minor characters might need minimal fleshing out.

    For stories with lots of people I do write character sheets, but only in as much detail as I think they need. Some of them it will be mannerisms or repeated figures of speech, others will include how they relate to other characters. Since some characters are based on elements of my own personalty, I find that just mentioning a few words gives me everything I need to know, e.g. if they have a hobby or play a sport Ive participated in it tells me some of their mindset or their life that parallels my own.

    Also, the snowflake method does say that characters will evolve during the writing of the story, and that adjustments to their sheet are pretty much expected. Theres no One Rule. My writing style mostly reflects the snowflake method, in that I build different layers of detail onto previously written drafts, and also create a brief bio for each of my characters so that I dont lose track of them.

    Since snowflaking is supposed to be about building structure to increase word output speed, this is going to vary from person to person. Im nearly done with the first draft of my WIP but Im going to see how following each step of the snowflake method will go with my next story. Each of those steps has very clear aims and they all make sense to me, so as far as that goes Im on board with it. But time will tell.
    Last edited by Norman Mjadwesch; 07-29-2019 at 06:34 AM.

  19. #19
    permanently suctioned to Buz's leg Putputt's Avatar
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    I hate doing character questionnaires. They always feel so shallow to me. Having said that, I often fall into the pit of Cardboard Cutout Characters, so honestly, what I've been doing doesn't always work...so maybe I should be more open-minded.

    Something I recently started doing is to do my own character sheets. I write little scenes from the character's back story. It does wonders for me. I get to hone their voice and understand the events that have shaped them into the people they are when the story begins. It does take quite a bit of effort and time, but so far, it's been worth the while.
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  20. #20
    practical experience, FTW Shoeless's Avatar
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    Despite being a huge fan of RPGs, I've never used character sheets in fiction. I certainly don't begrudge the people who do, especially if it improves their writing, but I'm a Pantser at heart, so I wait for the story to tell me who the characters are as the plot unfolds.

  21. #21
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    A brand new character told me exactly what he needs for the story to work better, a day or so ago. He just told me. Another character came out of one of the novellas I wrote--the novellas are backstory, and so they're like Putputt's suggestion... having the back story informs the character. He also popped onto the page with a good deal of humor, which I did not expect and definitely would not have written into the sheet. I would have assigned arrogance (which he is) but he expresses it in a humorous way which surprised me. And Alphonse is mad at me this morning b/c I have him behaving out of character in chapter 3 of this new project. I'll need to fix that for him.

    So--I guess I've decided to skip the sheets since the characters are so forthcoming with me. And in addition to skipping step 7, I'd already decided to skip step 9 (which is optional according to the method) and am doing steps 8 (the scene spreadsheet) and 10 (writing the first draft) concurrently, along with smoothing out the earlier stuff in prep for the writing groups.


    All good. We'll see where it all goes.

  22. #22
    vacuous eyes, will bark at shadows Norman Mjadwesch's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Patty View Post
    A brand new character told me exactly what he needs for the story to work better, a day or so ago. He just told me. Another character came out of one of the novellas I wrote--the novellas are backstory, and so they're like Putputt's suggestion... having the back story informs the character. He also popped onto the page with a good deal of humor, which I did not expect and definitely would not have written into the sheet. I would have assigned arrogance (which he is) but he expresses it in a humorous way which surprised me. And Alphonse is mad at me this morning b/c I have him behaving out of character in chapter 3 of this new project. I'll need to fix that for him.
    Two things here.

    1. I think a lot of us can relate to this.

    2. Why do non-writers give us side-eyes when these observations are made?

  23. #23
    Oops I just swallowed a feather SwallowFeather's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Norman Mjadwesch View Post
    2. Why do non-writers give us side-eyes when these observations are made?
    Well, boringly speaking, it's because we insist on telling it like the characters literally spoke to us and created themselves, rather than explaining that we like to have our subconscious create our characters because that gives both us and the reader the illusion that they're real. But it's so much more fun to just pretend they are...
    Last edited by SwallowFeather; 07-30-2019 at 11:55 PM. Reason: totally forgot a word
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  24. #24
    Tri-colored Herbs AW Moderator Sage's Avatar
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    I couldn't believe how much an unplanned character informed books 2 & 3 of my superhero trilogy. I had basic plot points planned out, but no outline, and at one point, I played with the idea of writing book 3 (the more exciting one to me) first. I'm glad I didn't. A character who was just supposed to be background cast became very important to one of my MCs and ended up being the most important catalyst for his character arc, and I never would have known that at a plotting stage, and certainly wouldn't have included him in book 3 without writing book 2 first. I guess my point is that as the characters change, so may your plot, so don't let all this work you're putting into snowflaking make you feel locked in when your characters don't act in accordance with your plan.

  25. #25
    practical experience, FTW starrystorm's Avatar
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    Agreed. When planning I had my MC have a brother the same age as her (a triplet). But I got the feeling there was another brother I should replace him with. I added her another brother (an older one) and he is far by my favorite male character I've made. He means so much to this story. Not only him but two background characters who were supposed to be mentioned twice at most are now important side characters.
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