On Character Sheets (or the lack thereof)

I absolutely love character sheets!  They combine two of my favorite things - lists and characters!  The sight of a list of questions to answer (usually in list format) gives me shivers of excitement.


That being said...I have written a number of books in the past year and a half, and I have not used a character sheet during any of the prep.

The sheets I'm talking about are the long ones you see - ranging from 20-35 questions are so, with things like "What's your favorite color?"  "Where did you grow up, and what effect did it have on your life?" and "If you could have one day all to yourself, what would you do?"

So what??

Let me explain.  I love those.  So why do I not do them?

A few reasons...

  • I have a busy life, and I would rather spend my free time actually writing.
  • I write mainly fantasy, and sometimes the questions don't quite match with a fantasy character, so I either have to skip the question, or substitute a better one.
  • If I started down the path of doing a sheet, I would never return.  I must do one for every.  Single.  Character.
  • Turns out, I don't actually need them to get the story done.
So what do I do instead?
I make a more simple character sheet...

Full Name/Nicknames:
Description: (ranges from hair/eye color to clothing choice, just a few short sentences will do the trick)
Personality:  (usually just a few sentences, enough for me to get the idea; maybe any little quirks or something that I know from the beginning)
Plot:  (anything that has to do with the story - what role they play, any changes they make, any growth they experience, and so on)

...find a picture or two...

Just to get an idea of their looks and/or clothing.  May or may not be 100% accurate, but just enough for me to feel like I can see them in my head.

...and then do a page of two of character journaling.

It gives me just a quick glimpse into their world and see how they see things.  Usually I try to write a page of them doing something very normal...getting up...going about their day...maybe a bit of action happens.  But I just want to get to know them a little - what do they care about, what do they like and not like?

Then I unleash myself into the story!

If I find anything that I can add to these lists (random family members showing up?)(hair color changes?)(suddenly becomes the bad guy) and keep on writing.  Often things do change a bit (usually names...) and I can make the necessary correction.  But learning more about the characters is half the fun of first drafting!

So what do y'all do?  Extensive character sheets?  Nothing at all?  Something in between?  I wanna know!


  1. I stopped using those long character sheets years ago, when I realized how they were affecting my drafts. I use a similar system to this when I'm working with my characters and drafts. It works much better for me!

    1. I mean, they're a great way to learn about your character!! But honestly, sometimes I don't even use half the information I put in them. So something briefer works better, I think.

  2. Never have really done character sheets. They tend to get inserted into the story right away. I probably should though...I have a sneaky feeling that my female protagonists are becoming clones of each other.


    1. I hate cloned characters...I had that a couple times when I first started writing. Felt like all the same sorts of people were in all the books.

      Hopefully you can tackle that before it comes a problem!

  3. I usually don't make character sheets, but I do make a mental list of some of those things in my head a lot! :P

    1. I wish I could do that! But I would never remember any of it. *somehow manages to glare at own memory*

  4. When I started writing stuff that wasn't for school, at probably 13 or something?, I used to scour the internet for character sheets. Maybe I thought that if I found the right one, filling it out would magically make my story write itself?? Because as you said, some of the questions aren't relevant to the genre. And I didn't tend to know the answers to most of the questions anyway. So they were interesting to consider (and to make me think "WOW I don't know my MC's backstory at all"), but I don't tend to use them any more.

    I do use a 'character speed drill', which I maybe got off GTW? It has things like "I am..." "My mother thinks I..." "I love it when..." I find it helps me get into my characters' minds, and I love seeing how they interpret the questions in different ways.
    (eg "I am..." "... [name]" "... the son of [famous person]" "...going to be [x] when I grow up" "... not happy to be here" "... very confused right now" ;)
    - Jem

    1. I think when we first start out, it can be tempting to use tons of lists and sheets and charts, in hopes that they can solve our writing problems. But sometimes we work much better without them!

      Character speed drills sound pretty cool! I haven't heard of them before!

  5. Your process is actually pretty similar to mine! Simple character sheet: check. Picture or two: check. Some character journaling: check. UNLEASHING SELF INTO STORY: check.

    Yep, our processes are almost mirror images. *high-fives* xD

    1. Whee!!! It's a pretty simple process, and gets you what you need! Yay!!

  6. I like your character journaling idea. I did that way back when about Kate, and continue to do so with other characters. I don't use one sheet per se, but sometimes find useful blogs (Writer Unboxed--favorite columns from Donald Maas) who asks such WONDERFUL questions about the character that I end up with files and files of those... If only I can remember where I put them!