The Character Sheet
Where do you start when you want to write a novel?
Do you open up your Word document, type CHAPTER 1, and face a blank screen? Do you spend hours with graph paper trying to work through the “what-happens-next” aspects of the plot? Do you write out the dream you had (or the one worked out in your mind) and hope it goes somewhere?
Other writers may have success with those techniques, but I’ve found something that always grounds me fully in my novels: a tool that provides me with the background I need to start, and more than anything, gets my creative juices flowing. I use a character sheet.
I haven’t got the statistics, but in a very unscientific, ongoing survey, I’ve discovered that almost everyone wants to write a novel. Nearly everyone has a brilliant idea they would love to put into print and have others read, leading, of course, to their fame and fortune. All I have to do is mention the fact I’ve got seven published novels and the person I’m speaking with will invariably say, “I’ve always wanted to write a novel,” or “I’ve started my novel a dozen times and I can’t find the time/know how/plot/conflict,” or any number of different excuses.
They’re looking for the “magic bullet” to make writing a novel reasonable.
Writing a novel is hard, but it is not impossible. There are tricks that you can use to get started. While I can’t promise to get your novel into the hands of publishers or readers, I have enough experience that I can help you with the writing process. I won’t promise it’s easy, and I won’t promise it can be done quickly, but what I can promise here is to give you one specific technique you can use to get your novel from a rough start (or even an idea) to a completed work.
My protocol should work for any genre and for every level of writing ability. You can use this method to write a middle-grade children’s novel or an adult fantasy and everything else. What have you got to lose? Sit back and get your computer ready. We’re going to write a novel.
The first thing I want you to concentrate on is character. Your characters are what move your novel from beginning to end. At this point don’t worry about the plot. I know this is heresy to plotters, and especially to those with plot-driven novels (most mysteries fall in this category). It’s not the plot that immediately comes to mind when you think about the novels you remember for years: it’s the character.
There’s a story I heard once, probably apocryphal, about a group of strangers sitting down to Thanksgiving Dinner together, and the talk got around to Holden Caulfield. One person, not realizing they were speaking about the novel Catcher in the Rye said, “Holden Caulfield. I know him. What’s he been up to lately?” The character of Holden Caulfield was so strongly developed by J. D. Salinger that he became real. Even years later, people remember Holden Caulfield and want to know more about him. This is what you need for your novel, a fully-fleshed, rounded character that your readers will root for and prompt them to buy your second book (even if it’s not a continuation), because they love your characters and can’t forget them.
Take a minute to think about your favorite novels. What comes to mind first? It’s always character. I’ll use the movie Star Wars as an example. When you think of Star Wars you conjure the images of Luke, Han, Leah, C3PO, Darth Vader and Chewy. It’s only after grounding yourself in your love of the characters that you start to think about setting, plot, conflict and resolution.
For every character in your novel, I want you to have a character sheet. Keep these in a notebook and handy while you’re writing. This is important. You don’t have to have the character sheet completely filled in before you start writing. You’d slit your wrists first if you tried, but I promise you a character sheet will help you keep track of important things like hair color and traits. As a new facet of your character develops, write it down on your character sheet for easy reference.
Without a character sheet, you’ll be two hundred pages into your novel and then forget if your main character’s (MC) hair is black, red or brown and you’ll spend hours of wasted time trying to find the original reference. Writing time is precious. When you’re writing, I want you writing not hunting up minor bits of information that need to be kept consistent. You can change your character sheet as you go. Give yourself permission to let the character tell the story, but use the character sheet to keep things consistent.
Here’s a simplified view of my character sheet. Make your own version of this and print out multiple copies so you’ll always have one available.
Scars or other identifying characteristics:
What makes him/her happy?
What makes him/her angry?
Important background information:
What does he/she want more than anything?
What is he/she willing to compromise to get what he/she wants?
What is he/she not willing to compromise?
Once you have a clear idea of who your characters are, you can get serious with your novel. If your character has an unreasonable fear of snakes, hopefully sometime before the end, he’ll find himself in a snake pit. If your character always wanted to be an Olympic gymnast, make sure he or she has the dedication and control to do so, so she can’t run off to the movies on a whim with a handsome boy if tryouts are in two weeks.
Then one by one, start adding conflicts to keep your MC from what he/she wants. That’s plot. Don’t let anyone tell you differently, plot is nothing more than a controlled series of events that keeps your characters from getting what they want. When your character has overcome all dragons (figurative and literal) that’s resolution and the book is over.
Ok, maybe it’s not that easy, but the key to writing a novel you want to finish because you’re passionate about it, is to develop a book of fully-fleshed, well-rounded characters that have backgrounds, wants and needs other people can relate to. To do that, try a character sheet. It will help.