Anyone familiar with pen-and-paper roleplaying games (RPGs) has spent a few hours, and plowed through a few packs of cookies and soda, to set up character sheets. Character sheets define the starting state of a character, and allow a player to track how that state changes throughout the roleplaying campaign.
Most character sheets are daunting to the first-time player, because there’s so much to track. What does the character look like? What are they good at? What equipment are they carrying? What spells have they memorized (if any)? If you’re roleplaying with a thoughtful group, you may also have to come up with a background for the character, and decide what their primary traits and motivations are.
Over the course of the campaign, most of these things change. Hopefully, you filled in your character sheet with a pencil; you’ll be doing an awful lot of erasing and rewriting as your character uses up potions, gets whacked in the head by goblins, and learns new skills. With a good roleplaying group, they’ll grow as characters, too: having their weaknesses and prejudices challenged, banding together with others to overcome obstacles… and earning those delicious experience points.
Your character sheet tells you the character’s state at the present point in time. Now doesn’t that sound useful to someone who has to care very much about character consistency and continuity: namely, writers?
A lot of planning has to go into stories, especially long ones featuring multiple characters. Some writers find it useful to maintain support notes, outlines, and various other “bible” documents outside of the work itself, as reference material for when they themselves forget what this character they haven’t seen in 100 pages was up to.
For novel-length work, I’ve found it really helpful to track both a character’s current state, and how it changes over time (i.e., their arc). I’ll talk more about change-tracking later. For now, we’ll focus on how and what to track about a character’s state in a particular scene, chapter, etc.
First off: there is no right answer. Second: I’m still working out my own system. But so far, using the idea of an RPG character sheet, these are some things I’ve found useful to track about a character’s present state:
- Mood- how they feel right now, and why.
- Attitude toward other characters in the chapter/scene, and why.
- Thing(s) they want.
- Action(s) they intend to carry out.
- Item(s) they’re carrying, if any.
- Injuries/illnesses/weaknesses they currently have, if any.
- A general idea of their skills and personality.
- Notes on their present environment- how they feel about it, what’s around for them to play with, etc.
These are all things that can, and should, shine through in various ways while drafting the scene. They’re great for continuity, i.e. not losing track of that whatsit I put in someone’s hands a scene earlier. And, if I’m short on ideas, looking at these notes often gives me an idea of how to proceed with writing that character.
Now, unlike a character sheet, I don’t have one centralized place where I track all this stuff. Since Scrivener lets you attach notes to individual scenes, I tend to note down this stuff in those spaces. Or, I may use comments to do the same thing. (Hey, this character said this because she’s trying to get this other guy in trouble.)
For inventory and injury, I have tried doing that in a separate document, listing that stuff for every chapter. I’m not sure I like this approach because it’s extra work, and takes me out of my work in progress, to go track down the document and scroll to the chapter I’m interested in. Plus, I make copy/paste errors all the time. In the future, I’ll probably attach these notes to each scene as well.
What present moment information do you track about your characters, if any? Where do you track it? Drop me a note in the comments and let me know!