What’s Love S’cot to Do with Character Sheets?
If you handed any socially awkward person a list of “character development” sheets as they headed out for a romantic evening, they’d laugh their asses off at the first question. Even we know how uninteresting and uninformative questions like, “What’s your favorite color?” can be. Quite frankly, anyone who showed up with that asking about your mother’s maiden name and where you were born would probably be accused of identity theft.
I’ll admit, however, that my abrasion to character sheets came from the same pace as my abrasion to formulas, rules, and just generally being told what to do. Truth is, I'm gullible. Some advice is pretty terrible, and the vast majority of it is only good when evaluated with a grain of salt. Now, in my wise old age of 29, I think that beginners should be encouraged to explore and it is the intermediates who should be introduced to the formulas.
Joking aside, I have been writing prolifically for over fifteen years, and I've found that people who get hung up with these creative tools struggle excessively when it comes time to break free and show who they are, while those who played around and rejected outside advice have an easier time embracing (gradually) what these rules have to offer.
Because of the intense depression I experienced this year, I struggled to become inspired. My imagination was lost, gone like the wind, and I cared little about writing at all. I didn't like people, including my characters. One thought did not lead to the next, most brainstorming sessions painful and slow. I was struggling, deeply.
Part of me was trapped. I had not only spent the year getting 20 rejections letters over a lengthy period of time, I lost a small, local play contest with a total of ten participants. It didn't comfort me that I came in fourth place, nor that I respected the plays which one. I was sick of no one wanted to invest in me. I hate to admit it, but I do believe in love at first sight - or, at least, the power of the first impression - and whatever it was I did, it wasn't good enough.
So when my friend showed me the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, I was elated. Finally, I learned something I could do differently than I had been before. Finally, I knew what was missing and where to put it.
In the last two months, I've had a surge of writing requests, needing to take the inspiration I did not feel and shove it. I became more and more engrossed in following formulas and other writing tips, and I've learned a lot.
While you will never hear me claim that writing from the heart is a bad thing, everything belongs in moderation. Those who stick solely to the rules will sound like it, but those who refuse to hear the advice of those before them will learn slowly. Having the ability to critically evaluate tools will enable you to pick out the dumb parts and find something useful.
After my sudden immersion into character sheets - a prior tool I found completely pointless - my ideas started flowing. It wasn't just the characters I understood (in fact, probably not so much more), but the questions asked required me to better develop the world. How do they measure years? What are the proverbs in their culture? Who are the famous artists and authors and singers?
Character sheets may not ask the right questions, but they make you realize areas you're not exploring.
It made it evident what parts of their culture I hadn't developed. Simple questions for a modern day character became huge storylines. Some questions made me consider new plot ideas. Others forced me to really analyze the growth of their world. Popular culture comes across as an oddity in a fantasy land, but they too have their greats, their household names.
Mostly though, I noticed what my stock assumptions and choices were. After doing several character sheets, I had to change some things I defaulted to, having already written it into one or more other backgrounds.
And even though your mother's maiden name says nothing about who you are as a person, it does force the speculative fiction writer to understand where the name, and thus, the character, came from.
If you are interested in using character sheets, it's my recommendation to grab several. Utilize a different one for every person in your story, and at the end, take the questions most useful to you to make your own document.
Sometimes, formulas and rules about nothing more than getting you out of your box and the brain juices flowing.
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