Writers Use Character Sheets, Too: Tracking The Present State

spiral_bound_notebooksYou may need a few… hundred of these…

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!

Create Tension With Obstacles


What is tension, exactly?

Tension is the heightening of stakes in some way. I like to think of it as a dangling carrot in front of the protagonist. You never want to give them the carrot right away. They should reach, and strain, and work- even suffer- for it. Meanwhile, the audience watches with bated breath, and ideally roots for the protagonist to triumph.

Obstacles must stand between the protagonist and what they want. If there are no obstacles, it’s hard for the audience to care as much. We want to see how the hero earns victory in the face of adversity. We don’t really give a crap if victory’s guaranteed.

How many sports movies start with a really awesome team that wins the big championship? Not many! We’re usually watching bad or off-the-radar teams who have to band together and rise above adversity to become unlikely champions.

Prefer a nerdier example? There was an episode of Star Trek: TNG once where Data steps into the holodeck to play Sherlock Holmes, and immediately solves the entire mystery as soon as the game gets started. That’s what happens with zero tension.

How do I add tension?

If a scene/story feels flat or boring, it may be due to a lack of tension. The protagonist(s) might be having too easy a time getting what they want. Throwing in more tension might spice things up and make the protagonist’s victory feel earned. Again, tension = obstacles. Roadblocks, potholes, holding back the carrot. Here are some suggestions for injecting tension:

Mystery. Have the protagonist come upon places, people, and things he doesn’t understand right away. These are questions he can work to answer over the course of the narrative. When your audience is asking questions, that’s a good thing. They’ll stay tuned because they want the answers.

Disagreeing allies. It gets boring when a group of allies nod along together. If there’s too much agreement between characters, step back and think closer about what each of them really wants and values most. There may be more disagreement between them than you realize. Have these disagreements surface, and make the characters work through them. A common example is the rogue cop busting heads with his strait-laced police chief, but even two close friends can have different opinions on things.

Environmental obstacles. Maybe the power’s out, or a train’s pounding down the tracks, or poison gas has leaked into the room. Something physically threatens the protagonist and must be overcome with skill, pluck, teamwork, you name it.

Villains to fight- realistically. These would be fights the where protagonist has to struggle, and/or enlist the help of other characters, to win. It’s boring and unrealistic when a protagonist fights hundreds of minions without ever breaking a sweat or taking a hit.

Real fights are usually short, ugly, and brutal. The punches that action movie heroes so often shake off can actually be fatal if delivered properly. Yes, one measly punch can do serious damage. Also, even a really skilled fighter is gonna have a bad day or make a mistake. Make your heroes more vulnerable, and thus relatable. Fatigue and injury can also work as further obstacles to their goals. Think of John McClane’s bare feet in Die Hard.

Critical misses. The term comes from Dungeons and Dragons, and refers to when a player rolls a 1 when attempting an attack or some other action. Rolling a 1 means the character not only fails the attempt, but also has the chance to do damage to themselves or those around them. Basically, they fail big.

Maybe something that should be easy for the protagonist blows up on him. In the horror genre, you’ve got the cliches of cars that won’t start and characters who trip while running away from the killer. Critical misses have to be used sparingly, unless you want to end up with slapstick or farce. However, when used creatively, they can be interesting.

Multiple and/or false leads. It’s often boring if every bit of dialogue and evidence points to Nasty McFoul as the sole antagonist. What about evidence that points to multiple characters, each with their own convincing motives? What if Nasty does good things too, forcing the protagonist to question his reputation? Now instead of racing to an obvious goal, the protagonist has to puzzle things out, making the conclusion he comes to more satisfying.

So what?

Tension is what makes a regular story into a page-turner. “How’re they getting out of this one?” “I have to see what happens next!”

Once established, tension must be carefully handled. You don’t want to let it dissipate too quickly, or beat it into the ground. Study your favorite books and movies to identify elements of tension and how they’re handled- then make sure you get lots of practice writing your own!

Any other advice for injecting tension into a humdrum situation? Drop me a line in the comments!

The Ups And Downs Of Deadlines

february-calendarI mentioned word count goals a while back, the advantages and disadvantages of working with them. Now I’ll do the same with another go-to progress and motivation method: deadlines.

Deadlines Are Great

Deadlines can help you break down a huge, impossible-seeming goal- like novel-writing- into manageable chunks, and provide a timeframe for getting it done. They also give you that kick in the rear you need to stop procrastinating and start writing.

We tend to prioritize tasks with due dates and deadlines over tasks that can be done “whenever.” Deadlines are a commitment toward taking your writing seriously.

It’s surprising what you get done while holding yourself accountable to a deadline, versus writing when you feel like it, without any time limit at all.

Deadlines can also help you move past sections where you’re spinning your wheels and getting nowhere. Maybe you just can’t get a scene right, or you’re obsessing over details. No worries! Move on and come back to it later, when you’ll have a fresh outlook that will hopefully help you get un-stuck.

Deadlines Suck

Poorly wielded, deadlines can suck all the fun out of writing. What was once your happy leisure activity may as well be a chore or work project. High achievers may find themselves stressing out over these deadlines as much as any other deadlines they face.

Like the word count goal, there’s also the temptation to sacrifice quality. It’s easier, and “looks” better, to leave bad scenes as they are, rather than fix them and potentially miss the deadline.

The importance attached to writing deadlines may make you neglect other hobbies or chores that need to be done, in service of meeting the deadline.

How To Use A Deadline

In the right hands, with the right mindset, a deadline can be really useful- but first, it’s crucial to figure out:

  • What a realistic deadline is for you. How much can you get done in the given time frame, without ignoring all the other things you need to do to maintain a healthy existence? For instance, during rewrites, I try to finish two chapters per week. That said, don’t worry about what I or other people use for deadlines. Go at your own pace, then challenge yourself to increase it later if you want.
  • What you’ll do when you miss a deadline, because it WILL happen. This week’s chapters are huge, you’re not feeling well, life throws surprises at you… whatever the reason, it’s generally best to forgive yourself, set a new deadline, and move on. Stressing out or beating yourself up is not recommended.
  • Whether you have a hard date that the entire project must be finished by. I’d recommend not setting one, so you have even less reason to worry if your schedule slips.

Do you use deadlines? How do you make them work for you? Let me know in the comments!

Create What YOU Love

red-crayon-heartI learned something neat this week about the song Mother, by Danzig. If you don’t remember it, take a moment to refresh yourself:

When Glenn Danzig released this song in 1988, it didn’t get much attention. It wasn’t until 6 years later that the song became a hit. In a 1994 interview, Danzig had this to say regarding Mother:

It was the song I always wanted to write. … But I never wrote that song to make it a hit – I never wrote that way, and I still don’t. I write songs so that they say something and do something, and if people like ’em, great – and if they don’t, they don’t.

I really like his attitude, and I think it’s a great one for creative people of all stripes (writers, artists, musicians, etc.) to emulate. Trying to make other people happy and chase what’s popular isn’t the way to go. Do what YOU want, whatever it is, without worrying about who’ll like it or buy it.

99.99% of the creative experience is your own sweat and blood: first bringing your idea to life, then painstakingly chipping away at it until you can’t refine it any further. You might as well enjoy what you’re making. Whenever you phone it in, people can tell.

I’ve known people who were more interested in money first, creating second. They were pretty crappy at what they did, and were big-time discouraged when the money didn’t roll in right away. Money and fame should be happy side effects (if they happen), not the be-all end-all.

Besides, you never know which way popular tastes will swing. Mother came out when glam-rock was big, so no one cared. A few years later, with heavy/thrash/death metal going more mainstream, people got into it. Danzig wasn’t looking for fame, but it found him because he’d stayed true to himself.

So make what you love, share it fearlessly, repeat. Enjoy the process. And good luck finding the fans you deserve!