One of the most common questions we get, in addition to how we got so... peculiar, is how we manage to bust out a novel so quickly. We regularly finish them in under a month. In fact, the speed of NaNoWriMo is sort of slow for the two of us, but it’s because we have a system. A system that was perfected over many, many years. A system with several cogs that work together seamlessly. So, for our very first how to, we thought we’d tackle character info sheets.
Now this can mean something different to different authors. For the purposes of our blog post, it’s where we jot down all the information we need to know about a character, and whether they play a big or small role, before we start to write. Some of it makes it into the novel, other times it’s a tidbit that only we’re privy to, but every single word of it is important. It’s how we’re able to see each character in every scene. It’s what keeps us trucking along where others may stumble. It’s why we do not believe writer’s block is a thing. We can write a line of dialogue in our sleep that’s completely authentic and visceral because we know exactly what each of our characters is thinking at any given time and in any situation. The more real they are to us, the easier it is to write for them.
Name, Role, Gender Identification, and Age
We like to start it off slow. We name them, first and last (and sometimes middle), then move onto their role. We don’t always begin with the protagonist either, though we do move them around to be at the beginning of our sheet even if they weren’t the first to appear. There have been plenty of times when the antagonist, or villain, was the first one to come a-knockin’ for a new story.
Then it’s onto their gender identification and age. If their assigned-at-birth gender doesn’t match the one they identify with, that goes here as well. Also, the age for most of our protagonists hovers in the 15-17 year old age range because we tend to write young adult literature. If it’s important to the plot, or their respective arc, we will add their birthday too, but if it’s never going to come up, we try not to stress over it. We want to be as thorough as possible, but we don’t believe in getting bogged down in unnecessary information and research either. To us, birthdays aren’t always mandatory. For you, that may be different.
Hands down, this is our favorite part of setting up a new character sheet. It’s where we get the first feel for them. We like to start on Pinterest and search ‘People as…’ and insert a term. For example, our go to is ‘People as Months’. The results are things like, ‘bonfires, the smell of freshly cut grass, cookies right out of the oven, etc.’. This is a jumping off point, though. Once we can picture them, the rest of the aesthetic comes naturally. We stay away from the normal physical descriptors and try to focus on what they might make someone else feel when seeing or interacting with them instead. We will occasionally make a visual representation of these aesthetics, but again, not absolutely mandatory.
Motivations and Mannerisms
All our characters’ motivations are found in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It’s the most recognizable and universal baseline we could find. It’s also based in psychology, so you’re automatically guaranteed you won’t be wandering into the superficial.
From there, especially if it differs from the norm, or appears at the bottom of the pyramid, we will list some extra information. For example, a character in a post-apocalyptic novel would be more concerned with safety, whereas a current teenager existing in our world might care more about love and belonging, which rests snugly in the center of the pyramid.
For mannerisms, we sometimes work from a list we found on the internet, or we imagine them saying certain things and work off that. Slowly, but surely, they come to life. Another way we’re able to visualize mannerisms is to stick them in uncomfortable situations. What are they doing? Saying? Are they quiet when normally you can’t get them to shut up? Are their fingers tapping nervously on any surface they can find? What do they act like when they’re lying? How about when they’re watching their crush from across the room? Doing these exercises helps us find their voice faster.
Oh, flaws. The thing no one wants to discuss unless it’s a villain. The reason these are required for us, even for our hero, is because if they have none, they’re one-dimensional. We don’t want that. We believe our time is better spent transcribing realistic situations and characters, and someone who has no flaws whatsoever doesn’t fit the bill.
We work from a standard list we find one day while Googling and pick out the ones that match the best. We don’t always have a laundry list of defects, even for our villains, but something must go in this slot.
This usually takes us the longest to fill in (and it’s only four letters!). We use the Myers-Briggs personality test, taking it as if we are our characters. At the end, it gives you an individual personality type with clearly defined characteristics. It helps us establish the borders for this new person. We know what they will and won’t do, even in the most dire circumstances. We know if they’re more likely to take charge or hang out in the background. That helps us tremendously when our story forces them into morally compromising situations. This is also the most helpful section for honing in on dialogue for everyone because it narrows down options, as with everything else on our character sheet.
Scars, Siblings, and Sexual Orientation
While scars and other markings are seemingly a purely physical description, it actually doesn’t work like that. If a character has acne scars, for example, they will probably be self-conscious about them. If they have a huge birthmark on their kneecap in the shape of Texas, people are gonna notice and they might take great care when deciding what they’re going to wear each day, especially in the genre we write in.
Siblings is self-explanatory, but it’s also where we’ll put any other familial information. We don’t go into too much detail here, though. We tend to save that for our very last section. This is strictly for names, and possibly ages, if that’s important.
While some people think sexual orientation is a given, or that it’s not integral to the plot, to us it’s just as important as their name. Who you’re attracted to, or not attracted to, says a lot about your personality and belief system. Without this, you can’t know anything other than superficial information about your characters. That might sound controversial, but hear us out. We’re not saying that everyone we write, or you write, must be something other than straight (though a lot of our characters are), but we are saying that as the author you must know.
Casting and Other Info
Yes, we fancast every single one of our characters. Why? Mainly because it’s fun, but it helps us envision different scenes. It helps us decide what makes it into the final cut. If we can’t imagine certain actors saying lines or doing something specific, we tend to cut it. Nine times out of ten, it ends up it wasn’t important to the plot. It has kept us from writing extraneous details more times than we care to admit.
And lastly, we have the ‘other info’ section. Here we write anything that didn’t fit anywhere else. If it’s crucial to the character’s backstory, we write it down. This section mostly consists of their dynamics with other players in the story, like their family. It saves us from info dumping too because we already got it out of our system.
We’re sure this seems like a lot of complicated research for what may never appear in print, but it’s worth it. It’s the only reason we can jump between four and five manuscripts at a time without blinking. Between these sheets and our detailed story outlines, we’re able to produce upwards of 100K words each month without breaking a sweat. And, not to brag or anything, but that is the total for all the stuff that makes it into the polished manuscript. As with any piece of writing advice, though, take it with a grain of salt, mold it until it works for you, and go to town. That’s the only way any of us makes it in the end.