We've all been there. You're about halfway through the first draft of your current novel. Or maybe you've even finished the rough draft and you're sitting down to revise and you're just... a little lost. You're not sure what to tackle first and you're not even sure who your characters really are.
Maybe this isn't as much of an issue for the Plotters out there, but for us Plantser/Pantser set, it can be a little more challenging when trying to tame an unruly first draft or whip a second draft into shape.
Here is one tried and true strategy that I've leaned on in the past, and has helped tremendously in rekindling inspiration, or just better understanding who I've created on the page.
What are character sheets?
Character sheets aren't a new concept, and many folks might even sketch these out before they ever put a metaphorical or literal pen to page. But again, for those of us who start with a vague outline, but then tend to wander wherever the creative winds blow, this can be a handy tool for steering back onto a smoother course.
This particular exercise is best to do AFTER you've already completed one draft, or perhaps if -- like me -- you're stuck about three-quarters of the way through a first draft and have had a bit of hiatus from the work and are now struggling to reconnect with characters who suddenly don't seem so crystal clear anymore.
It's a simple series of basic questions, derived from the writing craft book What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers. I love the concept of writers knowing more about their characters than they perhaps need to know. Is all of this information necessary for the book? Likely, not at all. Is it important for authors to know it? Maybe. And even if it isn't essential information, it's allowing you to play with your imagination and approach your creative work in a different way, to view your characters through a different lens. Experimenting with your characters and learning more about them simply cannot be a bad thing.
Here's the basic character sheet that I would suggest writers work up for each one of their important/named characters.
The Basic Questions: Who Are You?
1. Character Name:
2. Character Nickname(s):
4. Sexual Preference:
8. Social Status and Money:
9. Relationship/Marital Status:
10. Family, Ethnicity:
11. Diction, accent, etc.:
13. Places (home, office, car, etc.):
15. Recreation, hobbies:
19. Sexual History:
25. Character Flaws:
26. Character Strengths:
28. Taste in books, music, etc.:
29. Journal entries:
31. Food Preference:
Of course -- you'll probably have more to add to this list! After all, you know your characters best and you know what specific plot points might generate more of these biographical questions.
So, you know a bit more about who your characters are -- and now to answer the big question: What do they want? Not knowing the answers to the following questions is very likely why you're stuck where you are. Discovering what each one of your individual characters really wants to achieve in this exciting new world you've created, can help you whip plot bunnies into shape or spackle over plot holes or maybe shift your book in an entirely new direction.
The Tough Questions: What do you want?
I would argue, that knowing what your characters want is the single most important aspect of writing a book. Not only do you need to know WHAT they want, but WHY they want it. And, of course, is that the thing they really need? A character can want more than one thing of course, and often the thing they want is layered.
For instance -- my current work in progress (WIP) Astrid vs. the Asteroid has a first person narrator -- Astrid Moore -- who truly wants people to believe in the visions and predictions she makes about the future. But the underlying theme is that of acceptance. She truly wants acceptance from her parents and her peers for what she perceives as her differences. And a tertiary want is to find a home and family where she can feel safe.
She wants to protect the world, but she also wants to find a place to feel protected. It's OK for your character to want more than one thing, and in this example, I've attached those wants to PLOT A and PLOT B. Astrid wants to save the world by sharing her visions of the asteroid (PLOT A), but she wants to save herself within her circle of family and friends by being BELIEVED (PLOT B). Layers! Writers and readers love 'em.
I like to answer these two series of questions together in a single character sheet, because not only do I get a stronger sense of who the character is, but combined with their true motivations in the story -- a fully formed person begins to emerge on the page. This is especially exciting if they were being unruly in a current draft. This is an individual with their own hopes, dreams, and beliefs and they WANT something. This truly helps with "side characters" with whom you might be struggling to understand their role in the story.
In Metal Heart, in my first few drafts I wasn't really sure who Rabbit Santiago was and what he really wanted for himself -- aside from a budding relationship with the main character, Eleni Garza. Until I sat down with his character sheet. Every single character in your story WANTS something, and often times that is different from what your main character wants. That's where exciting conflict comes in! That's where story and plot and character interactions really get interesting.
Now, get out there and flesh out your lovely, amazing, unique, and engaging characters. And then see what happens.
Melinda Jasmine Crouchley, YA science fiction author and professional editor.