Character Sheets: Q & A

Recently, a member of my writers’ group asked me for my thoughts on character sheets. In response, I have created this little Q and A. 

What is a character sheet?
What does a character sheet include?
Where can templates be found?
Is it better to use a writing app or paper?
Why use character sheets?
Can characters be created by filling in character sheets? 


What is a character sheet?

A character sheet is a template, form, or worksheet for writers to fill in with details about their characters (one character per sheet). 

Character sheet template for Scrivener designed by Tannille

What does a character sheet include?

It varies. Some templates are more in depth than others. The writing app Scrivener offers a template with the following categories for writers to fill in; name, age, location, role in story, physical description, personality, occupation, habits/mannerisms, background, internal conflicts, external conflicts, and notes.

Writers can design or customise their own character sheets. Depending on genre, writers might need to track different elements. My current novel series is set in an urban fantasy world. There are a growing number of fantasy races and factions I need to keep track of. I designed my own templates, added race and faction, and used wording that makes sense to me. Over the years, I have created character sheets in standard list format and table format (something about filling in boxes).

Tannille’s old table character sheet template

Where can templates be found?

Many novel writing apps, such as Scrivener, offer templates within the app. Campfire Blaze is an app designed for world building, plotting and creating series encyclopaedias. Campfire character templates are easy to use and look very professional. Writers can design their own character sheets with both Scrivener and Campfire. 

DIY templates can be created on word processors (MS Word, Apple’s Pages, Scrivener). DIY is a better option for writers who prefer to fill in worksheets by hand.

Note: I only mention apps I have experience with. 

Campfire Blaze example

Is it better to use a writing app or paper?

To go digital or paper is a personal preference. Some writers love pen and paper. Paper lovers can print their character sheets off and fill them in by hand. Option b, for those trying to save printer ink, write the character sheets out as needed. Storing sheets in a binder system that allows for pages to be moved and sorted as needed is recommended. There is room to grow and allows for characters to be added in alphabetical order (or any other personalised grouping). 

Electronic lovers will need a writing app that has a document management system, such as Scrivener or Campfire. These apps allow for sheets to be shuffled around as required within the app. If you’re writing a series, Scrivener might not the best choice. In my experience, Scrivener struggles with the volume of data required because the system isn’t designed to be an encyclopaedia. Although, Scrivener works well for a solo novel with a limited cast. Campfire is like Wikipedia for creative writers. 

 Hard copies can be made of the character sheets and filed away. 

Why use character sheets?

They are an invaluable and fantastic reference tool, especially for continuity. Saves heartache when editing and a place to refer to while writing. Keeps track of details: what colour was so and so’s hair again? The sheets act as a handy checklist and helps makes sure the character is well rounded.  

Can characters be created by filling in character sheets? 

In theory. Filling out character sheets can turn into a trap. They can aid procrastination. Writers risk boxing themselves in by believing a character is a certain way, leading to possible future plot issues or writer’s block. The process of creating characters via character sheets is like creating characters by numbers (think paint by numbers), its rarely organic and risks relying on stereotypes. In my experience (and other writers I know), the characters created by using character sheets are ditched for characters more suited to the plot. Plot shapes characters and therefore, developing plot is more productive. Discover characters as you write or plot, characters reveal themselves as they chase their goals. Read Creating and Developing Characters for further details on the relationship between character and plot.

There are better ways to get to know your characters rather than relying on character sheets. Try writing exercises designed to explore characters.

On the plus side, character sheets encourage beginner writers to look at characters in a complex way, for example, the character’s internal conflicts. Writers who are character focused might have better mileage creating characters with sheets. Every writer should try everything at least once. 

Categories: Characters, Technology, Writing

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