In nearly every book on writing I have come across there is a section about character. And within this section there is usually a downright massive list of questions, blandly called a “character sheet,” designed to help you get a feel for your hero, his parents, and his great aunt’s favorite dog. I have NEVER found these helpful. They are too broad, ask far too many irrelevant questions and never really touch on anything I find important to the novel. So I disregarded them as useless.
However in recent years my eyes have been opened to the potential of character sheets…just not the ones in the writing books.
I am talking, of course, about the sort of character sheets found in table top Role Playing Games.
The sheets are designed to break a character down, show who she is and how she fits in the world, where her strengths and weaknesses are and even some idea where she draws solace from. By there very nature they prevent the character from having too much personal power, at least at first, and naturally assume that there will other characters around, much like her, to cover the gaps that her sheet cannot quite cover. Character Sheets also help mold a character in your head, since you have to justify the decisions you are making and the powers you have given her, and nothing gets the creative juices flowing like a naturally occurring question.
So with all these good points, why don’t writers mention it in their books?
Well for one it’s not their tool. They weren’t exposed to this particular idea at the right moment and ended up developing something else…usually something close to the giant list of inane questions from earlier. For another this does not work for every genre–it’s hard to use a fantasy half-elf rogue in a more normal setting. However there are games for everything these days and there’s probably one that fits your genre perfectly. Thirdly in order to use the tool properly you have to have a fairly good grasp of the setting and mechanics of the individual game (which takes a lot of effort). Of course, it’s not too terribly difficult to find a group of people who would just love to teach one to you. And finally authors can’t exactly copy those sheets from someone else’s intellectual property to use in their own books (even as a plug). Not much to be done about that one, but since this a free blog, I can post links to the various game websites for my favorites and talk about why I like them in the abstract without infringing on their rights. So everyone wins.
This post has that discussion.