Character creation for storytelling requires time, patience and perhaps a little persuasion. While it may seem as easy as ‘stepping into a character’s shoes’, in reality a lot more thought goes into channelling a fictional character.
For me, character creation begins with imaging. It then expands into:
- Text role-playing (to grow their personality and a history),
- Interviews and Dear Diary letters,
- A short synopsis about their role in the story, and
- Reflection. Lots of it.
During character creation, I make notes, save transcripts and feel what it is like to try things out while wearing their skin. Not everything I try sticks. When I begin writing the story, I might tweak, erase and rebuild characters depending on moments of serendipity.
Recently, I came across a quote by Aaron Miles, taken from his 2013 article, ‘On Character Construction’ published at Fantasy-Faction.com. The article discusses character creation associated with preparatory work.
An author should know their character intimately, they should know their history, how they would react in a situation, they should know their look and mannerisms down to the smallest facial tick. Yet all of this need not be revealed to the reader.
– Aaron Miles, On Character Construction, Fantasy Faction, November 18, 2013
But is it necessary to know all these things before you start writing your first draft? I don’t think so. From my observations and discussions with writerly friends, writers often learn about their characters by practicing their craft.
If you are a plotter, practice may include character research and development (R&D) undertaken before writing the first draft. But for pantsers, the inner workings of a character emerge while writing the first draft.
As a plantser, I have a foot in both camps. From my experience, the R&D often overlaps with the drafting. I develop and plan, I write, I go back to R&D, experiment with characters, replan and then write some more.
I also view character creation in a similar light to worldbuilding for writers. You can spend forever developing the pool of knowledge about your characters, or you can begin writing and allow your characters to reveal themselves as their experiences grow and your story progresses.
What should you know about your characters?
The first and most obvious aspect that many writers record about their characters are names. For some writers, choosing a name can be a stressful experience. It’s like choosing a name for a child.
But, I don’t feel it is necessary to settle on a character’s name before the writing begins. A placeholder name might be a practical move until a more suitable name emerges from the subconscious soup.
Other characteristics might cover:
- Species, race and ethnicity;
- A physical description;
- Knowledge, abilities and skills;
- Habits and mannerisms;
- History and memories;
- Desires and disgusts;
- Flaws and fatal flaw;
- Likes and dislikes;
- Ambitions; and
- Their role in your story.
How best to store character information
All of the areas above can be broken down into multiple detailed questions. For me, storing this information for easy retrieval and frequent reflection has been a challenge.
Over the years, I have recorded character information in:
- Multiple character sheets printed from different sources,
- MS Word and other types of text files,
- Online university and peer discussions,
- Sound files,
- Often unreadable handwriting on scraps of paper, and
- Multiple drafts.
Can you imagine the disorganised clutter that surrounds my writing desk?
Using character sheets
Creating a character sheet reminds me of writing a resume. Some writers start with a basic template, like the one in Scrivener, while others prefer to fill in a more detailed sheet with lots of questions.
The internet is full of downloadable character sheets. Most are one or two pages long. Some are tailored toward the role your fictional character plays such as the protagonist or antagonist, and while many repeat the basics, others ask different questions.
While different is good, you could end up with multiple sheets for the same character. And for me, that’s too much repetition and too much paper.
Roleplay character sheets
When I began thinking about my characters, I created my own character sheets styled from a roleplay game. It included:
- Strengths and weaknesses,
- Race characteristics,
- Classes, and
Dungeons & Dragon role-play sheets were familiar to me and sometimes, I would roll dice to decide my characters’ stats. (Nerd alert.)
I still roll dice to decide their stats.
The limitations of Scrivener’s sketch template
While I like the idea of the character sketch template in Scrivener, and I like the all inclusive character folder that keeps it neat and tidy under the one project, I find the template limiting.
Customizing the template at the very start was easy. I added a few questions from other character sheets, and then:
- Duplicated the template,
- Renamed the duplicate to suit my characters, and
- Moved the renamed file into the character folder.
When I began creating my Scrivener project, I was reading How to write a novel using the snowflake method (2014) by Randy Ingermanson. I then wanted to add new information to the template, including:
- A one-sentence summary, and
- A one-paragraph summary.
But when I went to add these sections, I realised I had to go through every character sheet and add them manually. There was no programming script to add these new headings. For twenty plus characters, that’s time consuming.
With a large cast, expanding the data, browsing and extracting information from Scrivener’s sketch sheets while I was crafting became a cumbersome.
Enter the spreadsheet
I have to give credit for this idea to my writerly friend, Helen F Miller. Recently, I was reading an informative PL-R exegesis that Helen has authored where she mentions using an Excel spreadsheet for data collection. It started me thinking.
For me, using a spreadsheet to collect character data means I can easily sort through it to find the information I need, when I need it.
When you have a large cast of characters with a lot of information, a search function is super handy.
By using a spreadsheet:
- A column can be inserted at any time to reflect new data headings or questions,
- The information is stored in one, searchable file,
- Fields can cross reference and link to other records on the spreadsheet,
- Scenes, chapters and page numbers can be registered, and
- Some fields can include links to external documents and images relevant to the character.
What I like best about using a spreadsheet is it’s flexibility. When I ask my characters a new a question, I can insert a new column anywhere on the spreadsheet and add the new information against each character’s name.
A complete cast spreadsheet versus a character sheet
A spreadsheet may not look as pretty as a character sheet, but I find it more manageable. You can still add:
- Links, and
- Detailed responses.
A single Excel cell can hold up to 32,767 characters. That’s a bit more than 10 A4 pages. I’m not sure if anyone would ever need this much room when completing a question. But if you discover it’s too small, you can create a link in a cell to an external document on your computer.
Now, when I want to ask my characters a new question or want to record a new attribute, I just insert a new column in the spreadsheet.
Linking the spreadsheet to your Scrivener project
Rather than continuing to update my Scrivener sketches, I’ve linked my MS Excel document to the character section in my Scrivener project. You can link multiple files such as a spreadsheet stored on your computer.
And if you ever want to print out the information you have collected on your characters, you can:
- Format the spreadsheet for printing, or
- Create a form template in MS Word that links to the Excel fields.
After merging the form data, you can print off individual sheets for each character.
What do you prefer to use?
Rather than using a character sheet, I now prefer to use a spreadsheet to capture my characters’ personal data. It’s flexible and searchable, helps to keep all their data together, and the information can be easily extracted into other formats.
While the spreadsheet acts as a comprehensive dossier, Aaron Miles is right, you don’t need to reveal everything you collect. Readers enjoy surprises just as much as writers and in their hands, it is no longer your story.
I realise that using spreadsheets can be daunting. How do you collect, maintain and extract your characters’ data?
2 thoughts on “How to create a character dossier for character creation”
I do realise this article was posted in 2017, however I’d like to say thank you for a well laid out article on the creation of character dossiers. I’ve been looking through templates recently, and most of them have either left me feeling overwhelmed or thinking that they’re lacking for the characters I have in mind. Reading your thoughts on creating your own dossier was helpful.
I’ll likely go for the excel method. As you say it’s not the prettiest, but it’s to be a resource for looking up and adding ideas to.
Point of interest as you’ve mentioned D&D character sheets – I’ve always found them so lacking in terms of proper character backstory, instead focusing on their stats, powers, spell and so on. D&D to me (and most of the players I’ve been game master for) is about improvisation, roleplay, character development and discovery. The battle side of things is, to me, not all that exciting, but it’s a tool to tell the story. Have you had any luck in actually using D&D sheets to assist in the creation of a broader story?
Thanks for your comment and sorry for the delay in responding. Work’s been keeping busy. I’ve more or less used the D&D sheets as a starting point for deciding a character’s strength and abilities. I also keep a journal of my character development and personal stories from game sessions. I do enjoy using the stats on the game sheets when I’m writing to guide me in whether the actions and decisions of my characters remain true. I might roll the dice to check skills, perception or to even determine which direction they go on my world map if travelling. I don’t do this all the time but it can make writing more interesting when the flow of writing is elusive. I think, it also helps me to stay true to the character. It helps me to remember character flaws, that not every lead character is invincible or should always win and that chance to has a role to play.