Weekly Musing: I Must, I Must Develop My Character!

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been working on developing the four main characters for my first novel. Since the novel is in the historical fiction genre, I’ve been working on research, a LOT of research, over the past 1.5 years. Even before I sit down to formally write even one sentence, I’ve begun reading up on novel structure, plot, setting, emotions, POV, and character development.

As I’ve been learning about character development, one tool in particular has come to my attention: character sheets. Characters sheets are a series of questions designed to help a person create a character, to get further inside the mind, body, heart, and soul of a character. When I was first researching character sheets, the top results that popped up were character sheets for role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. Eventually I was able to find some for just fiction writing. Characters, Emotions & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress has been a great help to me because it includes mini-bio sheets as well as advice on what questions to ask.

A lot of questions on character sheets are the basics such as age, birthplace, appearance, family background, etc. But the meat of the questions, what motivates the character in life, what kind of person does he see himself as, what’s her happiest memory, what’s his worst memory, etc. are to focus the writer to dig below the surface. To transform a character on a page to some living, breathing entity.

After collecting various character sheets from the internet and from books, I noticed a lot of the questions asked presume the character is a modern one. What kind of car does he drive? What high school did he go to? What’s his favorite movie or TV show? But what about those of us whose minds and characters like running around in the past? I have yet to discover character sheets geared at historical fiction so I just highlight relevant questions or adjust others for the time period I’m in.

But this has gotten me to think; why aren’t there character development sheets for different genres? A modern day character is different from an 8 armed robot designed to look like an octopus. Granted the ultimate goal of both these characters could be the same but it does feel silly asking an 8 armed robot designed to look like an octopus who did they take to their senior prom. Different genres have their own tropes; conventions if you will, so would it make a bit of sense for each genre to have their own character sheets?

For example, the needs of a romance writer are different from a western writer. A western writer is going to what to know what kind of horse(s) are my characters going to ride? What kind of gun(s) do my characters use? What time period? Location? Are there going to be Native Americans in the story, which tribe(s)? What building materials are available? But a romance writer, unless it’s a historical romance writer, isn’t going to be worried about this information so a guide more tailored to the romance genre convention would make sense.

I think having character development sheets by genre would really help writers’ lives easier. Having to comb through general questions to find relevant ones or rephrase others, adds to my workload. Time that could be spent getting to know the character and transforming them into a person.

But that’s just my view on it. Like everything else with writing, there is no correct approach. This has been an interesting experience for me since I don’t really do a whole lot of character development prior to writing a short story. Short stories by their nature, are supposed to be much simpler and deal with a single character’s journey. I let the character guide me more than actively spending hours a day, like I’m currently doing, thinking about them.

If anyone knows of any websites or books that contain character sheets more genre specific, feel free to wave your hand and let the class know!


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