On Writing: Character Charts & Tearsheets

I have notebooks (one for each of the six novels I have planned to write in the Austen Style) with a list of characters and a few lines describing each. That is not much to go on once you begin the writing process. I have found that writing (yes, in the notebooks) a more detailed list of each character, then typing it out makes it not only accessible when I am writing, but also when I am then typing out the story and want to make sure that I am not screwing up a description of said character without having to rummage for the notebook. Yes, this is a lot of work and probably more than the average person will ever go into. For me, it is easier to physically write out notes and then type from them. Call it an affectation leftover from my days of writing a paper every week during graduate school. This doesn’t necessarily mean that my entire story is written out verbatim prior to typing it out. I would state that a majority of it is there, sometimes with little notes from me stating to add a line regarding the weather or other such nonsense. But when I began typing it out, I did some editing from the written page to the typewritten screen, Some things I did away with completely; others were expanded upon. I created an entire chapter I had not planned on, which forced me to do a quick handwritten outline before typing. And while I am sure all of this is interesting, the one thing I have found the most useful is the use of Character Charts and Tearsheets.

I found a decent Character Chart via Pintrest from the website daddilifedotcom. While most of it has been useful, it distinctly reminded me of character charts I had to do as a Costume Designer and as a Theatre Major. It’s amazing how much of what I had loved and learned has translated into the writing process. I would say that if you ever happen upon a copy of The Magic Garment (by Rebecca Cunningham) and turn to the chapter of understanding the play, you will see some of these same questions, or similar, from the Character Chart given as a way of understanding the characters one is designing for. Actors and Directors go through the same process as well, so this is not an unfamiliar concept for me. I will state this, there are other sources that state you should have at least 100-200 questions answered per character to truly understand them before writing. I find that a tad excessive, except my questions ranged around 70, so perhaps it’s not that excessive after all.

The true strength is, of course, is to cater the questions to the type of novel (or even short story) that you are writing. If you find a chart or list asking questions about modern technology, and you are setting your story in the Viking Era, please feel free to disregard those questions. Not unless you’re doing some weird science fiction tale, then proceed. There were questions from that Chart I found that I didn’t answer for every character. Some character really didn’t have a favorite type of music or food. And for those, I simply stated that they had no preference. If one had an aversion to a certain color, I also gave a reason why. Such as ‘Mr. X hated black as he found it too depressing and brought up memories of funerals’. Questions not on the chart, are things like smells or touch. What if you’re character suffers from a form of Anxiety of PTSD, certain smells or sounds can bring back unpleasant memories. I use touch as a sensory too because if, say, someone was physically abused, they may find causal touching unpleasant. So, think of the chart as a way to start analyzing your character from the ground up, and even psychologically. Though don’t go overboard with it. Not every single character needs to be this thought out. A servant or random background character who has a few lines can be described with a few lines of notes, which is what I did for an office of lawyers who are mentioned, but never seen.

Tearsheets are most likely a term no one has heard of outside of the Theatre or Film Industry. It’s definitely a Designer term, but one I feel has been extremely beneficial to me and I hope will be beneficial for others. In layman’s terms, a tearsheet is a word document with an assortment of images, phrases (or both) that helps you “see” your character in the flesh. It’s a very basic Costume Design way of doing an initial concept, but I found it very helpful to use in conjunction with the charts. For example, I have a historical image of a naval uniform from the 1800s along with an image of a man in modern dress on the same page. While I am writing a historical novel, the image of the modern man, I have made a notation of, is being used for his posture. Basically, the way he is standing, the air he is giving off, is what I “see” in my mind for this particular character. I have an image of someone else because of their hair colour. I have an image of a 3 mast Frigate (I believe it’s Old ironsides to be specific here). I have an image of a few men in period portraits for hair styles. It’s a visual way of me being able to “see” this character, but it also helps, in turn, on the chart when trying to describe his eye color. I can’t say they are one thing when I’ve clearly decided visually that they are another.

Now, does this mean I will do one for every character? Heavens no! I only have tearsheets for the main characters (I believe I only have 8 in total for this novel, though I have close to 15 or 16 charts). Some characters are in the novel so briefly that a chart is sufficient enough for me that I didn’t need any visualization in order to write them. Some, especially the ones who are in it almost all the time, I did need the visual along with the written. Bear in mind that this is how it worked on this particular novel. The next may require me to have tearsheets on almost everyone or only two or three. I really don’t know until I start the writing process as the other 5 are in pure Outline stage. Not every technique I have come across will work for me, but it may work for you. I tend to use what I am most familiar with, which are techniques I learned as an English Major and a Theatre Major. If you are more inclined to just write on a laptop or PC without anything handwritten, then by all means go forth and write!

Books that I have found useful as they have great insight on how to process characters and analyze them. They can be expensive, so please use your local library:

The Magic Garment (2nd Edition) by Rebecca Cunningham

Acting: A Handbook of the Stanislavki Method Introduction by Lee Strasberg and Compiled by Toby Cole

Acting in Shakespeare by Robert Cohen

Theatrical Design & Production (4th Edition) by J. Michael Gillette

Color: A Workshop for Artists & Deisngers (2nd Edition) by David Hornung