The Townhouse of Ideas

Rethinking Character Sheets

When my book Song to the Siren came out, a website interviewed my husband and me. One of the questions was about whether we used “character sheets,” which are lists of what characteristics a character has. I blew the question off by saying something like, “I have a vague idea of what one of my characters is like, but I don’t really know the character until I put that character in a traumatic situation. Then I see what the character is made of.”

Now, that’s true, but I later realized that actually, I do write character sheets. I just do them in my head, that’s all. I guess I’ve been doing this writing/editing thing so long that it just comes naturally to me.

Well, I began to realize, for a novice writer, character sheets might be a good thing, just to organize their thoughts about their characters.

So, to be helpful and to show solidarity to novice writers who don’t know how to write a character sheet in their head yet, I guess I should list what I do in my head, just in case it helps writers who are just starting out.

Let’s take the lead character from Song to the Siren. I’ll show you what I knew about the character before I wrote him.


1/ Occupation: cult rock star/musician who died young, under mysterious circumstances.

2/ Place of birth: Germany. Reed was a military brat during his early years.

3/ Where’d he grow up: Bloomington, Minnesota during the 1960s.

4/ Economic status: upper middle class, living in a suburb

5/ Family: emotionally-distant father, alcoholic mother, a golden child brother who died in Vietnam, and a grandmother who believed in Irish mythology.

6/ Physical description: the most beautiful young man you’re ever going to see

7/ Intelligence level: gifted musician, near-genius IQ

8/ Psychological problems, if any: oppositional defiance disorder, possibly seeing things that aren’t there, prolonged grief syndrome concerning his older brother

9/ Miscellaneous facts: hates bullies, authority figures, rules, and unfairness. Loves his girlfriend, his friends, his music, and his freedom.

10/ Known enemy: The Belle Dame Sans Merci

That was the character sheet that I had up in my head. Everything else, I had to find out by writing about the character. I call the Song to the Siren novels (yeah, I’ve written more than one) my “play to find out” novels, since I didn’t know more than what the character sheet in my head told me, and I was curious to know more.

I learned more by throwing everything but the kitchen sink at my character. Seeing Reed fight cruel fate was how I “found” Reed. Once I found him, I didn’t want to let him go until I knew everything about him.

Now, here’s the thing about character sheets. If you know everything there is to know about a character, what’s the point of writing that character? Isn’t it better to have a few mysteries about the character?

I’m reminded of something my husband used to do before we were married. My husband played some table-top role-playing games in college. So, when he and I were living together, he used to do these long, well-thought-out character sheets for characters he made up. He’d do the backgrounds, the stats, the weapons, and so on. He’d min/max the heck out of characters. I started feeling a little bad about my husband not having a gaming group to join. I suggested he find a group.

He answered: “Nah, why bother? I already know everything the character is capable of.”

A lightbulb went off in my head. “Oh, it’s like Alfred Hitchcock, who used to storyboard his movies down to the last shot. He used to say that, since he’d already blocked out the movie, there was no mystery to the thing any longer. Shooting the movie was the most boring part to him.”

“Exactly,” my husband said.

The point is, it’s probably better to leave a lot of mysteries in your character sheets. Know enough about your characters to start writing them—then throw them into the mud, and see how they respond. In their responses to trauma and drama, you’ll find your characters, instead of what you assume they’re like.