Monday, 4 July 2011

Character Data Sheets

I like going to creative writing workshops as a student, not a teacher, and I went to two last week, both run by editors. They were useful and informative, and I had two great days playing around in areas I don't normally touch - 1st person, present tense etc. But oh, how I gave an inward grimace when they both trotted out the character data sheet.

For those who don't know, a character data sheet is a list of things about a character - name, age, what they're wearing now, what they had for breakfast, what did they dream about last night, what is their favourite/least favourite food etc. Sometimes the questions are mundane - what sort of car do they drive - or quirky - if they were a piece of furniture, what would they be?

The data sheet was presented, and the writers dutifully scribbled their answers. Me too, although I think the character data sheet is one of the more pointless tasks for a writer to do. Why? I hear you cry. Lots of books/teachers insist that the character data sheet is an essential part of creating a character. To which I say: Phooey!

The answers are simply made up by the writer. They're not genuine reflections of a character, just where the writer's imagination lands them on the spur of the moment. Give anyone a data sheet, and they can come up with answers which can amuse/entertain/fill an awkward moment but they are superficial responses, ungrounded in anything real.

What makes a person real? How do you 'know' someone in real life? By what they had for breakfast? I think not, unless you truly believe that everyone who enjoyed a bowl of Cornflakes this morning has an identical personality. You know people by what they do. It's their actions that reveal character. So to start building a personality with made-up data is daft, in my opinion. Far better to write scenes that show them interacting with other people and things, and understand their personality through that.

So, why do they keep turning up in classes? Because it sounds logical. Know all the information about someone's life and you will 'know' them, except you don't, until you explore the reasons behind their choices - but the character data sheet doesn't go that far.

Secondly, I don't think it's coincidence that the people who seem most keen on data sheets are non-writers and beginners. Put it like this, getting a group of students to fill in a data sheet and then read them out cheerfully fills at least half an hour of teaching time - you could probably stretch it out to an hour at a push.

Thirdly, if you fill in a character data sheet you feel you've done something positive to promote your writing. OK, you haven't actually done any real writing, but the sheet was at least something....

I've never done a character data sheet for my writing. When I need to know what a character had for breakfast I make it up there, on the spot. The decision is based on what I know about the character's internal make-up - their hopes, their fears, their conflicts - all of which I've learned about through their actions and thoughts.

I can see that I'm laying myself open to an accusation that my characters aren't 'real' and that may be true. But I don't see how knowing what they had for breakfast would make any difference to that at all.

Over to you - is there anyone out there who'll defend the character data sheet as a means of discovering character?


Diandra said...

I don't use explicit data sheets, but most of my characters get their own file somewhere, where I scribble down everything I discover about them. It's more a "fill in as you go" thing than something I consciously work on, but it helps my poor memory... wouldn't be good to first claim that someone doesn't like fish and have them indulging in seafood a few hundred pages later. ^^ (Yes, my memory is THAT bad.)

Karen said...

The only time I did a sort-of character sheet was after I'd finished my last novel, and I felt one of the characters needed a little bit more depth.

I plucked a celebrity Q&A inteview from a Sunday supplement and answered the questions as if they were my character. I already knew him well from writing about him, but surprisingly it helped as I gave him a quirky hobby that helped explain some of his other character traits!

I wouldn't ever write one before starting though, for all the reasons you gave :o)

Dan Purdue said...

I'm not a fan of data sheets, but I did use a 5-question version of the "essence" exercise you mention (If the character was a type of [thing], what would they be?) in a short story workshop I ran recently. I intended it to work as a bit of an ice-breaker.

It wasn't 100% successful - I think a few students thought it was pointless or just didn't "get" it. But most seemed to enjoy exploring a character this way. It's less dry than just a list of what flavour crisps the character likes, or where they buy their underwear. It's a good way of exploring contradictions - if you describe somebody as both an E-type Jaguar and a scruffy mongrel dog, what is it about their personality that accounts for such different interpretations? If you can't answer that, there's probably something missing from your understanding of the character.

I wouldn't suggest using this as a way of actually generating a character, but it can be a stimulating exercise in terms of a way to think about existing ones a little more deeply.

Jim Murdoch said...

The only thing remotely like that I’ve done was with my last protagonist. I decided after having written a large chunk of the novel that she should have a schizoid personality and so, having read as much as I could about what the parameters of schizoid behaviour could be and deciding she had to be high-functioning, I went back over the book and tweaked her responses so that they would be appropriate – or if out of character explained as such. I basically had a list of things she could and couldn’t do. Other than that I've always carried my characters in my head and allowed them to evolve on the page as I write. I get the idea of a data sheet and I suppose I could see the point if you had a lot of characters all milling around but since I’ve never had more than four people in a room at one time, two of whom barely said a word, it’s never been a problem.

Beckett refrained from elaborating on the characters beyond what he had written in the play. He once recalled them when Sir Ralph Richardson "wanted the low-down on Pozzo, his home address and curriculum vitae, and seemed to make the forthcoming of this and similar information the condition of his condescending to illustrate the part of Vladimir ... I told him that all I knew about Pozzo was in the text, that if I had known more I would have put it in the text, and that was true also of the other characters."

Sarah Duncan said...

Diandra - I probably should do that, but like the diet, I'm always going to start tomorrow.

Karen - I like the idea of lifting existing interview Qs to stimulate some off-beat responses, I might try that.

Dan - I think it IS useful doing the quirky stuff, such as what car would they be. Apart from anything else you can get some original description: he was an leather arm chair sort of man, she was a limousine of a woman.

Jim - I read an interview with David Hare where he said that the wonderful thing of being a playwright was he didn't have to spend time working out where characters had gone for holidays as children, he just wrote where they were now and what they were doing.

Beth Kemp said...

Thank you for this. I shall take this as permission not to fill in any crazy sheets about characters!

One thing I've found useful in the past is briefly summarise (or copy and paste) anything factual about characters into a separate file under their name so that, like Diandra, I don't risk forgetting a character's quirks.

womagwriter said...

I've tried them but prefer to get to know my characters as I write them.

Having completed a first draft, when I read it back through, I noted down descriptions of my characters so I can be sure of consistency at least in physical characteristics.

I think character sheets have their place though - if you are looking for inspiration for a short story. Fill them in for two different characters made up on the spot, then chuck a problem/conflict at them (eg they've just pranged their cars; they're after the same promotion at work; they're a couple and one wants a baby the other doesn't etc) and you've got an instant story.

Liz Fielding said...

So right, Sarah. I've always found them pointless, too. I had a character who reached for chocolate at every moment of stress. It wasn't the chocolate that was important, it was what had happened to her in her life that made her need a crutch that was important. Could just as easily have been ice cream. Or popcorn. Or cheese.

Fiona Faith Maddock said...

In general I agree with the comments already made. If I do them at all. I work in the same way as Diandra and womagwriter. I tried doing them 'properly' and lost the will to live, but I do find it useful to note certain fine details, such as favourite words and expressions each one uses. One thing I find very hard to do is get a distinctive speech style between characters and noting the tiny differences between them does help.

Penny said...

Having come to writing rather later in life [!] and despite my calm and mature exterior [ha!!] being actually of a panicky and uncertain disposition... I have to admit I find the structure of a character data sheet reassuring - at least, to begin with. I also keep filecards, notebooks, and post-it notes! But have quickly discovered that it's a better idea to get the characters talking. Monologue or dialogue. It's fun, and *sometimes* something true develops.

Kate said...

Really interesting post. I use data sheets for my main characters and couldn't get off the blocks without them. They're also useful if I find I'm in the middle of a novel and have a minor character who just won't come into focus for me.

I have to say, I don't agree at all with this: "The answers are simply made up by the writer. They're not genuine reflections of a character" - because the way it works for me is that the characters themselves are telling me, I'm not making anything up. I appreciate that might sound a bit mad or possibly pretentious, but it genuinely is the way I feel when the responses come. A bit like a medium channelling spirits!

The other things data sheets help me do is establish backstory, so when I start writing I've a very clear idea of the lives my characters lived before the book starts. I'm terrifically insecure and need all the information I can get!

So great post, Sarah, very interesting, and it shows how we all respond to different kinds of prompts and how we all have different ways of establishing our characters.

Kate Long

Sarah Duncan said...

Which only goes to show, there's more than one way of writing a novel.

My starting point was that they get set in CW classes and in 'how to' books as a starting point - often compulsory or you won't be a 'real' writer - when to most writers it's not actually the best way of getting to
know how your characters operate.

I feel the same way about the Hero's Journey...hmm, blog post brewing.

Sally Zigmond said...

As usual I am slow to catch up with your blog. I can't tell you how relieved I am by your opinion of character sheets. I hate them. Always have and find them pointless and boring. And now I know why? They're static facts. What makes people what they are is how they do things.

Thank you!

Becky Black said...

I think they can be useful in a couple of ways. If they ask "big" questions about attitudes and beliefs they can get me thinking about those things for the character which I might never have considered.

Then the parts with the little everyday facts about a character I might fill in as I write, as a place to store a fact I've just thought of while writing, so I can find it later without having to read through a mass of text to find out what colour I said someone had dyed their hair or something.

I find that I only really get to know a character once they start walking and talking and sometimes all my plans for what I thought they'd be like go out of the window.

Sarah Duncan said...

Really interested that most people seem to find them not useful except as a record of character details when writing.

I remember when I started thinking that there was something wrong with me because I'd been to classes/read books which insisted a CDS was the essential first step, and yet they didn't work for me at all - and still don't.

Having said that, perhaps they will on the next book - it's horses for courses, as ever...

Kate said...

For me, the process is magical - actually, not unlike the way one of those Magic Eye picture appears! - and it is truly wonderful to watch the pages "writing themselves" after I've completed the exercise.

Nowadays I just wouldn't have the confidence to set out on a 100,000 words novel without calling first at that station. As Julia Bell says, "Characters, like real people, have histories: places they came from, ideas about the world, families." The questionnaire exercise is my way of finding out the bulk of that information.

However, I don't think *anyone* should insist on *anything* when it comes to the process of writing. You have to find what works for you. I think the questionnaire idea originally came from the UEA course - and it came to me from another novelist via an Arvon course - but it was only ever billed as one possible way into a character.