Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor
zette@cableone.net

 

Character Sheets as a Teaching Tool

By Lafayette C. Curtis
2005,
Lafayette C. Curtis


Many years ago, not long after I began researching the craft of writing in earnest, I found myself confronted with an intriguing idea: character sheets. Back then these sheets seemed to embody all there was to know about my character. Later I discovered that many published writers claim to be organic writers who do little or no outlining, much less filling out of character sheets.  I found that I fill in the character and plot information much more naturally when I write free-form essays instead of categorical lists. This led me to a question: what is the point of character sheets?

The question lay dormant for some time until I stumbled upon a discussion comparing the processes of organic and organized writing. In the intervening period I have found that I tend towards the "organized" end of the spectrum; even though I don't always use detailed outlines and have not filled out a character sheet for years, I'm aware that I like to compile detailed essays and meticulous chronologies in addition to triple- and quadruple-checking worldbuilding information for consistency. Therefore, when one of the participants in the discussion brought up the subject, I made up a quick on-the-spot analysis of the merits and demerits of character sheets and arrived at the conclusion that, perhaps, character sheets are best viewed as teaching aids.

Character sheets are often misconstrued as lists to be filled from top to bottom. Nothing could be farther from the truth; what matters is not the categories themselves, but the interconnection between them. Generally, it is not very difficult for beginning writers to come up with a fascinating basic idea for a character. The problem is that they often don't know how to develop the character into a complex, engaging entity with a life of her own. This is where character sheets come in handy; writers can start by filling out one category with the basic idea they have in their minds and figure out how this information is going to affect the contents of the other categories. For example, say a character is fifty years old. From there we can track down to the category of "Outlook," and to fill this category we can ask the question, "Does she think her life has been a wasted one? Or a fruitful one?" By answering this question, we raise a host of other questions, like "What makes her think so? Is she going to do anything about it? How does that outlook manifest in the way she interacts with other people?"

An effective teaching (or self-learning) approach would involve using character sheets as an aid in internalizing this pattern of interconnections. Once the pattern is clearly established in a student's mind, there is little or no need for the tangible presence of a character sheet in the process of character development. Of course, some writers still prefer to fill in character sheets in order to maintain consistency of a character as they write a particularly long work (e.g. a multi-book series), but in such situations they generally fill in character sheets after the initial process of character development, not before.

Obviously these generalizations should be taken with a grain of salt. I know of at least one experienced writer who learned the pattern of interconnections without ever touching a single character or outline sheet. On the other end of the spectrum, there are highly visual writers who like the presence of character sheets as visual aids, and those who say that they use character sheets to compensate for their poor short-term memories. Yet these examples go beyond the scope of this discussion; suffice to say that, properly used, character sheets can be an excellent tool for teaching the concept of interconnections in character and plot development to beginning writers.