A confession about character charts

I don’t like character charts.

There I said it.

You’d think as someone who loves plotting and outlining that I’d be a diehard character chart person. Or I’d want to find magazine pictures of my character and make a collage. And I’d want to make a play list of their favorite music.

But I don’t do any of those things.

My first manuscript, my first conference, my first sit down with an agent – and she requested a partial. I almost died and went to manuscript heaven. I sent it off, full of hope, but received the rejection later. Something about the characters not being three dimensional. (And my writing so wasn’t ready.)

So I went on a quest. To find the secret of the 3D character.

With charts, I do like questions about the emotional mindset of the character. The questions that dig deep about why a person is the way they are. Why do they respond the way they do.

I write a fact about my character. Then I ask why. Then I ask why again and again. Until I’ve narrowed down the core emotional truths about my character.

And I love developing their backstory and what haunts them.

But all of that still won’t make a three dimensional character. 3D characters seem to be a combination of all aspects of great writing from dialogue to description to backstory to using sensory details…the list goes on.

And yes, the Snowflake Method comes with character charts. So, I did them. For all my characters. I don’t know if they’ll make a difference. I’m still a bit wary. I’ll let you know.

Do you use character charts?


23 Responses to A confession about character charts

  1. Kelly B October 20, 2010 at 10:51 am #

    I do use character charts. I know everything about a character. Family tree. Where they grew up. What songs motivated them. What kind of music they like. What cars do they drive.

    It helps me when I find myself at a crossroads, plus I normally have a couple of stories in the works all at the same time. I am a multi-tasker. Can’t help it.

    • Laura October 20, 2010 at 12:09 pm #

      Kelly – That’s great. I think if char. charts work for people then awesome. I usually figure that stuff out as I write, which totally goes against my plotter image.

      Benoit – Thanks! I do my best to get a good feel for my character. Those emotional truths!

  2. Benoit Lelievre October 20, 2010 at 11:54 am #

    Laura, I love, love, love your approach on wrtiting. You have a knack for keeping things simple and on the money.

    I don’t do charts either, but I do a “cast sheet” where I try to resume a few guidelines. That helps remembering all the variables I’ve put in place.

  3. Quinn October 20, 2010 at 12:25 pm #

    I’m not even really sure what a character chart is.

    I believe that we need to know about our characters. We have to give them backstories and motivations and all that, but … I don’t see the point really in asking characters questions, trying to get at some deeper emotional truth.

  4. Steve Griffin October 20, 2010 at 12:44 pm #

    I’m with you on this one. Character charts….hate them. I tried doing the Snowflake method, but the character synopsis steps burned me out. It’s one thing to list out some of the details so your character doesn’t have blue eyes in one scene and brown in another, but writing paragraph after paragraph of motivation, plot synopsis, etc. on each character is draining.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Snowflake method, but the multi-page character synopsis is a bit too much for me.

  5. Stina Lindenblatt October 20, 2010 at 12:57 pm #

    LOL You’d think we get together to discuss our posts, wouldn’t you. 😉

    I do a variety of things to get to know my characters, but charts definitely bore me. I tend to do the mult-page character synopsis through questioning. But I also finds this helps guide my story when it comes to outlining. I discover some amazing things about my characters I didn’t know, and that changes the direction of my story. 🙂

  6. Angela Felsted October 20, 2010 at 1:04 pm #

    Maybe it’s cheating, but I model my characters after people I’ve known, often times even combining people to make someone more interesting. That way I have a sense of what the person will do and not do right away.

    I’ve never made a chart, though I suppose I could try that. It might make coming up with people out of thin air easier.

    • Laura October 20, 2010 at 1:09 pm #

      Angela – I’ve done that too! Combining people I know or I meet someone that would make a great character!

      Stina – We both must be in the process of creating a new story!

      Steven – Yes the character synopsis are draining but in the end they helped me. And they revealed info about my secondary characters that help my story.

      Quinn – A character chart fills out info like eye color, height, weight, backstory… and the reason I ask questions to get to the emotional core is that that reveals how they will respond in certain situations and why. But all things are def. not for everyone!

  7. Jennifer Hoffine October 20, 2010 at 1:11 pm #

    My cousin, who writes screenplays, once said that he’ll sometimes let dialogue scenes go on longer than they need to so he can get to know his characters better.

    I don’t do this consciously, but as a panster, I find the best way for me to get to know my characters is by writing them in scenes. Yes, I do have ideas in my head that sometimes change and then I change the manuscript (I’m doing this with a minor character right now) And yes, this means writing a lot of extra stuff (not on purpose) that I won’t use…not to mention revising and editing later. It’s like a sculptor finding the statue in the rock, I find my characters in the manuscript.

  8. Laurel October 20, 2010 at 3:26 pm #

    I’ve use Nancy Kress’s character questionnaire from her book _Dynamic Characters_ and find it a great tool for developing characters.

    What I think is THE most important thing for creating a 3D character is developing his or her attitudes and opinions. That’s what makes voice zingy and what makes dialogue styles among different characters sound varied.

  9. Karen Strong October 20, 2010 at 4:00 pm #

    I can’t do character charts. When I did, everything I had wrote about the character, I didn’t use. I usually get to know my characters through revisions — a little slower but that’s what seems to work for me.

  10. Glynis October 20, 2010 at 5:30 pm #

    I do an outline of sorts for each character. I like your idea about the pictures from magazines and doing a collage. That would help define my characters.

  11. Robert Guthrie October 20, 2010 at 6:05 pm #

    Charts, for me, are a little too close to math or science. So I in my WIP journal I’ll write about a character. It’s pretty much the same thing, but through prose rather than a chart.

  12. Sherrie Petersen October 20, 2010 at 6:46 pm #

    I’m not a chart person. I like to do a lot of free writing about my character’s backgrounds. That usually unearths a lot of back story for me.

  13. Tere Kirkland October 20, 2010 at 9:23 pm #

    NEVER! The questions don’t always seem to matter to me… instead, I question what role the character plays in my book, figure out what their motivation is, and then write a little essay about why they are motivated to do whatever it is I need them to do. As you can see, I’m a plotter. 😉

    The rest of the details, the little stuff that makes them more realistic, just comes along as I write and discover their voice.

    Great post!

    • Laura October 21, 2010 at 12:28 am #

      I love how all writers work differently! Thanks for commenting everyone!

  14. Cindy R. Wilson October 21, 2010 at 3:03 am #

    This is interesting. I do character charts but they’re nowhere near as extensive as my chapter outlines. I guess that’s where I learn the most about my character. I give them their goals and their motivations but beyond that I try hard to give them something extra–a passion, a hobby, a quirk, something else to create that extra dimension like you were talking about.

  15. Jackee October 21, 2010 at 4:03 am #

    I so feel ya! Love plotting, hate character exercises. But you’re right–they are necessary and all elements of good writing come together to create a whole of good, dimensional characters.

    Have a wonderful night!

    ~ Jackee

  16. Lydia Kang October 21, 2010 at 1:50 pm #

    I have mixed feeling about them. I did them for a newer WIP, and it was helpful. But I also find that when revising, I have to change my characters sometimes, and then it’s like…who cares about those sheets if I’m just going to change them?
    So, I’m still on the fence.

  17. Patti Nielson October 21, 2010 at 2:39 pm #

    I don’t do them. I tried once, but it seemed forced, especially since I really didn’t know my characters yet. Like someone else said the best way I get to know my characters is to write about them. Does make for a lot of work on the rewrite though.

  18. patti October 22, 2010 at 2:31 am #

    Hmmm. I haven’t really done one yet, though I do make notes and check out images. My agent’s proposal template calls for some pretty heavy-duty character probes, so I’ll just call that a character chart and be done with it!

    Have been missing you!

  19. Julie Musil October 25, 2010 at 7:27 pm #

    Ha! This was my task for this morning! While I sometimes put this off, I do find that it helps me think more about the character, instead of all the stuff that’s happening to them. I guess in the end I think “What the heck? It can’t hurt.” But I do usually think of plot first…go figure.

  20. Joyce Shor Johnson November 17, 2010 at 11:27 pm #

    Hi Laura,
    I’m finally catching up on reading blogs. I wanted to respond to this post. I was never keen on character charts until one of my MFA mentors required me to do three. It was so painful, took me two weeks, and made me cry (mostly from the agony of having to do the charts). Afterward, I found that I had gotten to know them so well; I was able to add personal details and discovered traits.

    So, guess what I have been doing for my latest wip? It’s grueling, but I think it really helps. At least for me.

    Haven’t seen you around town lately. Hope all is well.

Leave a Reply