by Rowan B Fortune
Rowan is an editor, mentor and writing tutor, novelist and short story writer. As Rowan Tree Editing, he's helped dozens of writers improve their work and finish major projects. He recently edited and contributed to the anthology of utopian fiction, Citizens of Nowhere, a volume drawing heavily on his PhD on utopian fiction.
This taster article originally appeared as part of Rowan's Patreon campaign to support his essay writing and wider work with creative writers.
In online writing communities it is not too rare to come across the character creation sheet. Indeed, the program I am using to write this essay — Scrivener — comes with its own, replete with categories such as Role in Story, Physical Description, Habits/Mannerisms and External Conflicts. I never find these useful, preferring instead to have a broad sense of those who populate my stories (a name, notable features, maybe a simple sketch of their background leading up to the story) and allowing them to become themselves in the course of a narrative, in the details they give away through dialogue; the things they own and rooms, flats, wildernesses and houses they inhabit; the friendships and animosities they have or come to form in the course of events, and so on.
Character sheets are a bit too Dungeons and Dragons. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with that format, especially in the pen-and-paper context, but often those categories (e.g. Role in Story and External Conflicts) fail to capture what is important about a character in the world of written narrative fiction. They can, for instance, complicatedly overlap; one's narrative role might hinge on an external conflict, making the latter a redundant category and encouraging the writer to over-complicate an otherwise clear obstacle. More often, it invites too much trivia before you get to know the fictional person, prioritising incidental details over characteristics that — if allowed — take on interesting significance. But all of this is not my chief issue, which is to do with how such shortcuts misunderstand what is essential to the people we are attempting to capture and bring to life in prose.
To explain this, it is best to be concrete. If I imagine someone, a young man who hates his hair (the way it tangles, its shade of blonde) for some reason that is rooted in his self-conception (perhaps his traumatic hatred for a blood relation), but then he meets another with whom he initiates a relationship, and is complemented on his hair, how it curls, its striking colour, his relationship to himself is perhaps transformed through his relationship to this other man, and in ways that then might allow him to reconcile to himself and his other relationships, or not quite, with other results. This is the kind of process that cannot be easily reduced to a character sheet, since done well it will organically arise from a story and involve so many ambiguities, so much left implied, irreducible and messy.
There is a general truth contained in such an interaction between different people, the world and their self-conceptions. As conscious and social animals we are constituted (and importantly, constantly and always reconstituted) socially; we often see ourselves through other people — individually, or through impressions of an imaginary and generalised other conveyed to us, however inaccurately or vaguely, through social relationships. This is as true for solitary, introverted characters as it is for gregarious, extroverted ones. Fundamentally, we are not a static list of characteristics, but a socially mediated set of uncertain relationships.
Character creation sheets invite you to be overly abstracted and solipsistic about your creations, often sticking too much to the level of quirks and factoids. Even if these lists are determined by social interactions the person is said to have had in the past, such a device gently and subtly encourages us to see those preset factors as more essential to the character than they necessarily need to be. We then define the character and the reader's relationship according to a scheme, potentially refusing to allow events to refashion this invention. Perhaps we include some planned sense of how a character will change within such a sheet, but even this is clunky, refusing the possibility that a story will throw up unexpected dynamics unanticipated by our authorial plans.
We can certainly sometimes benefit from planning details about our characters. It is certainly good, especially as we write longer narrative fiction, to keep a reference document of salient facts about the people who populate our worlds: it is annoying for a character to go from having brown to blue eyes, or to be tall on page 54 and squat on page 348. Nonetheless, such points of reference should not become shackles to limit the scope of a story. One of the best things about writing fiction are those moments of epiphany when the logic of the piece suggests something to you that you could not have foreseen. When characters' motivations and senses of themselves go off, organically, in an original direction.
Character sheets are not the only things that preclude such surprises (excessive plotting is a worse culprit), but when relied on too greatly they are a significant inhibiting factor. We need to trust ourselves to get to know the people we write into existence. If they are to approximate living people, then like living people they are necessarily incomplete, less than fully defined or known to themselves. Their ideas of themselves should not only be revisable, but also essentially unstable and inconsistent, fabricated, imagined, to some extent false — as are everyone's self-conception to an extent. A world of fixed characters with every aspect of themselves worked out, all interacting on preset lines, is liable to become flat, pale, and — perversely — difficult for readers to engage.
There are other exercises we can use to understand our characters prior to writing. We can write a dialogue between them and ourselves, or even another character. Maybe use an interview style dialogue, in an attempt to acquaint ourselves with their idiosyncrasies and self-perception. We can put them into a scene we do not intend to use. We could describe their living spaces, even if we will not encounter those places in the story: the colours of their office's walls, the bric-a-brac they collect, how they organise their kitchen.
The advantage of these approaches over the character sheet is that they do not limit your character, and therefore do not limit you. Such exercises also focus us on the character's embeddedness (even their embodiedness) in a world that they must accommodate to. Finally, they are, unlike the character sheet, fun experimentations in themselves, engaging ways to write that hone our skills rather than squandering them in banal lists that have little to no application outside themselves.
Ultimately, people are not sets of formula. Try to reduce a living person to a character sheet and you will encounter problems. It is a shortcut through the difficult process of characterisation, which is an ongoing one throughout any storytelling. Moreover, it robs you of the real value of writing about people, which is contained in getting to know them, their unexpected flaws and virtues, the choices they make that arise from their always in-flux personalities — albeit not always in the manner one would hope or fear.
When you first realise that one of your characters is dynamic, hard to reduce, it is a joy — one of the great joys — of storytelling. Such dynamic characters breathe life into your imagined worlds, and it is possible for us as writers to start to wonder what they will do next, who they will become, and how this person came to be in the first place. This is the experience of the author transcending their limits, tapping into the unknowable resources of association and implication. So scrap these clunky obstacles that are preventing you from getting to know your characters, and write freely.