Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Character Charts

I came across a tool on the web today: the Fiction Writer's Character Chart by Rebecca Sinclair (html version here; pdf version here). I've never used such things in the past, but this time I thought I might give it a try. While writing my first novel, I had the leisure to get to know my characters gradually as the story unfolded. Now that I have a much tighter schedule for the second book, it might help to complete some of these charts in order to become familiar with my characters more quickly.

You can't really know a character until he/she starts to reveal him/herself in the actual writing: in his responses to events, in the actions that he undertakes, in the details that surface through his interaction with other characters and with his environment. In one sense, spending time filling out a chart about the characters' likes and dislikes, habits and strengths, might better be spent writing actual scenes. However, filling out the charts will cause me to think in a focused way about each character; it might make writing some scenes a little easier, in that I won't have to stop and create every reaction, gesture and thought from scratch. Sinclair's questionnaire seems to be a good one, in that it doesn't dwell solely on superficial issues. She asks you to delve deeply into the character's psyche: for example, how does the character think others perceive her? How does she react to problems? If she could change something about herself, what would it be? Thinking about some of these things ahead of time might make for richer scenes with more psychological depth.

Would my characters in TMOS have been different if I'd thought about some of these issues beforehand? Perhaps, in small ways. At the very least, the questionnaire might have prompted scenes that were never written into the book as it now stands. Now, the beginning of a new project, is the time to stretch myself and try a different approach. My great fear as I embark on this second novel is that I'll wind up rewriting the same book in a different wrapping. If I spend some serious time with these character worksheets before I jump into the story, I will at least be able to ensure that the new book's characters are thoroughly different people than Jollande et al.

Have you ever used character worksheets or something similar? What was the result?


Catherine Delors said...

I am like you: I don't know my fictional characters that well when I begin writing them. They slowly reveal themselves to me in the course of the book. So I would be hard pressed to complete one of those charts until I am done writing. Then what would be the point? And the astrological sign? I must confess that I never worried about that for any of my characters...

And I wouldn't worry about your second novel being too close to the first one. I had the same concern, and I soon realized that it wouldn't be the case at all, even though the setting is still Paris, only 6 years later. Now I am even warned that Book 2 might be too different from "Mistress."

These charts may be fun to do, they have a "parlor game" feel to them, but I don't think they have much to do with the craft of writing.

Julianne Douglas said...

I laughed when I saw your comment about the astrological sign (actually, that question isn't featured on the pdf version, the one I printed out to use). That was my first reaction, too--how new wave, what use would that be? Then I realized, hey, in the sixteenth century, astrology was quite a respected endeavor. Royal babies, for example, often had astrological tables and prognostications drawn up at their births. Knowing one's stars was pretty common then--it probably wouldn't hurt for me to know my characters' signs, whether or not they (or I!) believe in astrology!

Digression aside, I do agree that such worksheets can devolve into little less than a party game, another way for an author to procrastinate yet feel like she's working (umm, has anyone mentioned blogging as a similar activity?). I probably won't spend too much time with them, but it's a way to get a handle on new characters and think about the things that influence their goals and motivations. I did answer many of the questions for the characters in my first book, only the responses were scattered all throughout my notes. At least using a worksheet gathers everything in one place for easy reference (to save that desperate scrambling while writing Chapter 25 when you ask yourself, "What vegetable did she turn her nose up at back in Chapter 6?)

Catherine Delors said...

Absolutely, in the 16th century, astrology was taken quite seriously. Remember Nostradamus predicting - accurately - the death of Henri II? I have been rereading "La Princesse de Cleves" lately, so I am immersed in the Renaissance these days.

And this gives me the idea of a new post on the astrological signs of the characters of "Mistress of the Revolution." Did you know that Marie-Antoinette and Coffinhal were both Scorpios? I had never thought of checking that out before.

You are right, by the way, about blogging being a way to keep from writing. I have the final edits of "For The King" beckoning to me right now...

Biter said...

I've actually used them on quiet a few occassions, it just all depends when I start using them. Its not until well into the book that I find them of any relavance. On my first book, it wasn't until I was near the end, so that I could organize my thoughts easily, especially when your working on more then one project at a time. My second book I didn't use Character charts so much as a slide shows, and it just forced me to pull out ideas about them.

But I've given characters birthdays, only to find their astrological sign matches their exact personality... though not entierly.

Depends on the writer in the end.

Julianne Douglas said...

Biter, I think you've made a good point. The charts usefulness can vary depending on where you are in the book. I think that I will probably use them more as a place to record how I've described a character, rather than as a way to plan out a character ahead of time. So many times when writing my first book, I'd think, "Wait, what color did I say her eyes were?" or "When was he born?" and I'd have to search through the manuscript to find my answers so my characterizations would be consistent. It would have been so nice to have all the "facts" in one place to cut down the time spent searching.