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

The Folly of Letter Writing & A Few Poems

As someone who loves Austen, one knows that all correspondence during this period was done by letter writing (unless done by visiting in person). Now in the electronic age that we reside in, letter writing seems a very quaint and old fashioned way of communication. One that I still feel deserves some revival and some credit in a way. After all, does not one’s pulse quicken when Elizabeth Bennett reads Darcy’s letter that day at Rosing Park? Or feel one’s heart break when Marianne Dashwood writes letter upon letter to John Willoughby and receives nary a reply? I confess that when I am feeling low, I turn to Captain Frederick Wentworth’s letter of his love to Anne Elliot in Persuasion. That, I have always felt, to be the epitome of romantic confession at it’s finest in Austen’s writings. And I confess that I, in turn, have used letter writing myself, much to great disappointment and heartbreak.

In today’s age of the dating scene, many meet on-line or in clubs or bars. Dining out seems to be the norm for any social interaction these days and quite frankly, I must confess that I’m not that kind of woman. I’m afraid that while most of my sex are fine with the social conventions of the day, I’d rather be much happier with a man who’d be willing to take me to a museum. I know it seems rather odd and a bit strange, but when you think really hard about it, it doesn’t seem very strange at all. To me, the modern social dating scene is very much like the Theatre-a lot of dressing up, a lot of acting and hidden meaning. I don’t want to go out to put on a mask and be surrounded by players in the pseudo fancy dress party we call the social scene (yes, yes, I am well aware of Shakespeare’s “All the World’s a Stage” quote). To me, how can this lead to any meaningful relationship (and I have given this much thought since I’ve done nothing but think about this over the years). While I enjoy dressing up and acting a part on the stage, I don’t wish to play a part all the time and I do feel that our modern society demands that we constantly portray a version of ourselves that is false and not our true selves. Perhaps we do this for protection. Perhaps because Society, in general, has become so superficial and jaded that we can no longer recognize truth and only appreciate falseness.

To counter this false reality, I want to be not only honest with myself, but also honest with any man that I am interested in. Yes, I am sure that I would enjoy going out to a fancy restaurant and dressing up. I’m not too unusual in that regard that I would not enjoy some sort of romantic dining experience. But I don’t think that should be the only basis of a relationship. Nor should bar hopping or clubbing (neither of which I find particularly interesting). Yes, I would rather go to a museum or for a stroll in a park or even fishing (yes, some girls do fish).  I am also too set in my ways (and too old at this point) to demand attention all the time. I enjoy having time to myself and would think that any man I chose to be with would also appreciate alone time as well.

As to how this ties in to letter writing, I have written two such letters in my life that expressed very personal and deep emotions to two very different men.  One I did seeking answers (and also closure) which I never received and probably never will. Did this person hurt me? Yes, absolutely and he did so either intentionally or unintentionally (perhaps a mixture of both). But I have long since forgiven him and have never demanded an answer or explanation from him. Life is too short and too precious to waste time on someone who clearly didn’t care enough to even say he was sorry. The second I wrote very recently to someone I very much care for basically telling him that I do like him but I, being the nerdy person that I am, would much rather go to something like a museum than a fancy restaurant. I should also mention that said letter was four typed pages long and I tried very hard to be extremely witty but feel that I failed at it. For by my reckoning, this man has had said letter for over 24 hrs and is either shocked and still digesting said letter or will now hate the very sight of me. I am well aware of my shortcomings in the looks department, but considering that I am very kind and very smart, I am hoping that he would at least be kind enough to see that an outing to a museum is pretty tame in comparison to what he normally does.

So was this a smart move on my behalf? I am not sure. It was pure folly to be sure, but born out of frustration as well. This man in question would be upset at any other single gentleman paying any sort of attention to me. And it boils down to if he doesn’t wish other men paying call to me, then there’s clearly only one logical solution-become the suitor. If you do not wish me to have other suitors, then you must woo me. Considering that I do not want fancy dinners nor late nights out drinking, and would be more content with a trip to a bookstore or renting a film, I’d say I was fairly easy going sort of woman. Not that a fancy dinner or two wouldn’t be warranted-I’d like some modern taste of romance thank you very much. But if I had to chose between spending time in a boat on a lake fishing or going to a club, I’d chose the boat each and every time. Even though this would mean I’d be wearing very casual clothing, no jewelry, no makeup (except sunscreen), and most likely be wearing a hat with my hair in a ponytail. Basically, dressed for practicality, not to be cute or sexy.

Now, I did give this man my blog address and I do hope that he reads this post, if only to understand me a little bit more. But to also see that this is who I am-I am a writer. Now, I’ve been busy working of late which has prevented much writing, but I plan on doing some writing to make up for that. Both on this blog and on my novel. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t wish to spend some time with him because I really do. I really fancy him even though he drives me insane, is unlike anyone I’ve ever met, makes me laugh, and tells me that I am beautiful. That in itself is very seductive to any female.

The Poems:

What do you want of me?

I am more than a friend but less than a lover.

I have no clue why you compliment my eyes to others

Yet tease me so mercilessly. I do not know what you want of me.

You talk to me, confide in me.

Yet I have no loving sighs, no sweet kisses to sustain me.

You have the general nickname for all the girls

And yet a few special ones for me.

But you have nicknames for others as well. I wish you’d tell me

What  you want of me.

I grow frustratedly bothered at inconvenient times.

You stare-and I stare back. A game of who looks away first.

Sometimes it’s me and at others you.

Again, what do you want of me?



I slept ill, legs constantly moving

Refusing to remain still while cruel images

Filtered through my mind’s playback.

Comparisons made-cruel things those.

I can never compare to others.

They are far more lovely, more thin than I.

Yes, my clothes are loose fitting, yet always neat and tidy.

Still, you made allusions to a preference-a more skin tight appearance.

How cruel you are lately!

So very cruel and mean! No longer kind and caring.

Gone is the man I feel for.

Where is the sweet love that worried about my wellbeing?

Now there is a vain, pompous man in his place

That cares more about his looks and how he is seen than how

He treats others. His jests have gone from airy lightness to sharp pains.

I need to fall out of love

It must be so. Your actions have made is easier

For you treat me so badly with your cruel teasing that

My heart is breaking.

My soul is wounded and cut very deeply.

I am bleeding rivulets of tears.

Words & Friendship: A Reflection

Words can wound. They can hurt and leave scars that never seem to fade. I have suffered almost all my life because of words and I also want to make my living by these same things. Ironic, isn’t it? My first memory of words being hurtful was when I heard a teacher refer to me as “colored.” I didn’t understand the implication at the time as I am very light skinned and pale to boot, but I knew from her inflection, her tone, that “colored” was not good. This was in the early Eighties and I must have been in Kindergarten or First Grade. Now, while my mother is White and of European ancestry, my father is from India-Pakistan. Now, was it right for this teacher to refer to me so? For that time and for her, yes it was. Doesn’t mean that I didn’t feel it’s implications. After all, there were parents who refused to let their children play with me because I was “that colored girl.” And I had a teacher who refused to let me go to the bathroom, thereby forcing me to wet myself, because I, as a “colored girl”, had outperformed the other children on some test or something or other. While that happened 30 years ago now, and no longer hurts, the scar remains. But Time moves forward, different town, different school. In the late Eighties to early Nineties, I was still “colored” by some of the older teachers, but some were referring me as “mixed.” I still don’t understand how one can be described as a baked goods or cooking term, but at least the effort was made.

This doesn’t mean that words stopped being hurtful. New words were used; Camel Jockey being a particular favorite for some odd reason. Odd in that those children didn’t understand why I continually pointed out to them that unless one went to the zoo, camels don’t roam the streets of Pakistan. Yet, it still hurt. Some told me to go back to were I came from, which is problematic since I was born in the United States. Can’t really go back when you are living about 2 to 3 hours from where you were born. Turban lover was another one, which still perplexes me. As far as I know, no one in my immediate family is a Sikh or has ever worn a turban. Somewhere in this mix, I became friends with Anneliese. I really thought we’d be friends forever. Naiveté is something I still have and cherish. Now, while she did become friends with me, I was not aware of how she routinely made fun of me and encouraged the bullying behavior in middle and high school. Again, words hurt. I never knew, of course, until last year when our friendship of over 20 years had finally disintegrated into thin air, how cruel, how petty she was in our youth and how petty she still is in many ways. I have never understood how one can profess friendship yet not only encourage a bully to harass your “friend” in high school, but stand by that same bully years later. Did it hurt? This ending? Absolutely. I’d be lying if I said I was not affected. I still am in many ways. I now question every little thing she ever said to me, every little nuance she made. It taints memories that were once comforting. It also made me very aware of how little I truly knew about her.

I never knew, for example, the deep hatred and jealously she had towards me for having a Master’s Degree. She would constantly bemoan to me how cruel it was that while she got married and had a child, I got a degree. Yes, life was truly cruel to her. She’s been lucky enough to never want for lack of male companionship while I was stood up for Prom. She could eat anything and still retain her fairly slim body while I have always struggled with losing weight since I was eight. How cruel life was that she’s been married (twice) and has had a lovely little boy. The agony-the abject horror of her life! I shudder with the fact that she’s not been saddled with over 100K in student loan debt and could not only afford to purchase a house and a newer car, but have a job that allows her husband to pursue his dreams of a higher education. Clearly, her life has been the stuff of Gothic novels a la Anne Radcliffe or Wilkie Collins.

Yet I had to work my way through Junior College and give up my dream of becoming a Paleontologist (because I cannot live without a shower or flushing toilets). I worked for a year, had my identity stolen and had to put off attending a four year school for another year because of it. At that same four year school, was subject to being ignored for almost an entire year by fellow classmates (most of whom are now very dear friends because I do forgive). Yet I was threatened to be beat up by others on-line (yes, cyber bullying back in the day-2005- and nothing was done about it then). Yet I survived. Worked again and then went on to UIUC where I was told on a weekly to almost daily basis my first year in the MFA Costume program that I should kill myself. By the head of the program too. Very, very wounding. I still suffer from that and will suffer from it for a long time yet. No teacher should ever, ever, be that cruel, that demeaning to a student that they are in charge of. The saddest part is that no one in that department cared. The Head of the Theatre Dept left and was replaced-both men didn’t care. I told a teacher that I trusted and while he was shocked, he did nothing and since leaving that school, has never contacted me to see how I got on.  The Graduate School, alas, could not do anything because it was up to the Theatre Head, who, as I stated previously, didn’t give two figs if I left on my own accord or in a body bag. Needless to say that I was “told” to leave the program. Mainly because my “depression” had no place in Theatre, but also because Helene (the head of the Costume program), would refer to me as a “Dirty Paki” and didn’t think my “kind” had any business in Theatre. Again, words to wound, to hurt. Helene is a White South African, which needs no explanation as to why she hates “coloreds.” Yet, I never officially left that program. I worked in the library, took classes, and applied to other schools.

Anneliese never knew what I suffered at UIUC because I never told her. Also because she didn’t want to hear it. Most conversations always revolved around her. In fact, many of the people I met at that school (especially the students), don’t know and this will come as quite the shock.  So I went on to Kansas State, which wasn’t bad. But words, they still hurt. And bad experiences can follow one like the plague. While Dana wasn’t as cruel as Helene, she also didn’t care. Her focus was on the other grad student-no one else mattered. Well, almost no one. If Ryan came anywhere near her, she fluttered like a teenage girl with her crush (Ryan was a former student). Now, things weren’t all fun and games. After all, Dana would repeatedly comment on how “blind” I must be because of my thick lenses. Trust me, if I could have afforded the ultra thin lightweight ones, they wouldn’t have been so thick. Pardon me for having an astigmatism in both eyes. And, of course, my appearance. I just wasn’t as “cute” as the other grad student and was told this by Dana and the Shop Manager, Melissa. Everything I wore was “wrong.” My hair, my makeup (when I wore any), my jewelry, was wrong. My sewing skills were “atrocious”, but only if Melissa knew it was something that I sewed. Fun fact: if I sewed a garment and gave it to an undergrad to pass off as their own, the sewing on it was usually said to be fine to excellent. And many things were sewn by me, but I could never acknowledge that I had a hand in it. If I turned that same garment in…unacceptable. Perfection was expected at all time from me and only me, even though fabric, being malleable, isn’t prone to perfection in any way, shape or form. As punishment, I was forced to scrap off gum and other disgusting items off of the shop floor with a razor. Or cut loads and loads of cardboard strips (half of which Melissa deemed to be no good and were then, promptly, thrown away). So, words continued to hurt. But at least at this school, I refused to stay silent and got support from teachers who actually cared. Doesn’t mean that I am still not suffering. Don’t take my nonchalance manner for face value. The scars are still there.

So, what is the point of sharing all of this? Well, because I want to share it as it’s time. Plus, not only did I loose the friendship of someone I never once questioned, I also had to distance myself from others who are still dear to me, or were at some point in my life. When someone decides that it’s funny to joke about people like me being thrown into internment camps or having to register, it’s truly not funny. And it hurts so very, very much. When a cousin has become so radicalized that he defends the murder of Syrians by Assad because Assad is better than Isis, it’s shocking, painful and I have to distance myself. I have to because not only are his words disgusting to me, they make me weep at his foolishness and ignorance. I’ve had to end friendships with people who have threatened to have me deported for defending religious freedom and tolerance. And Time and Time again, I’ve had people, mainly men, inform me that if I lost some weight, I’d be attractive. Since I’ve lost close to 40 pounds, pray, tell me when this attractive feature is supposed to occur? Is there some sort of secret button or lever that appears on my person that I can activate? Again, words.

As I stated before, words can wound. They cut better than any knife and when they wound, they truly wound. Words can be used for good. They can and I know they can. But when you use them to hurt, it’s abuse. And having been subject to such abuse for too long, I will no longer tolerate it in my life. I started to be selfish in regards to my feelings in 2016 and I will continue to be so. Will this be easy? Not at all. And this may be one of the most personal blogs in a while since I want to stick to pleasanter things like writing and research. But once in a while, I do have to comment.