Some people swear by “character sheets”, others hate them, say they don’t want to nail their character down by answering a lot of silly questions about them. But I think there is a way to use those, and other questionnaires creatively to help you build your character. Character sheets are also useful in a practical way.
These are often found in writing books, or online. They’re a kind of fact sheet for your character. The questions will range from the plain facts – age, height, weight, eye colour etc, to details of their lives, like what they eat for breakfast, and their favourite movie, to the big questions, like what are their religious beliefs, and what they love most in the world.
I think the mistake people make with these sheets that puts them off using them is that they think you have to be able to sit down and answer all those questions in one session. And that once an answer is on there it might as well be carved in stone. Not so. Like the rest of an outline they should be constantly changing and being updated as you work on your planning for the story and once you are drafting. Because some questions won’t be answered until you start to draft. And the answers you already have may change. So keeping that updated as you work will give you a character “bible” you can use to check facts and to look at the character’s goals and motivations and work out how to work on them in the editing.
But the main thing they are useful for is asking those questions about your character that you maybe can’t answer yet. That you maybe haven’t thought about. For that you’re not so much looking to decide “What is his favourite breakfast muffin?”, as the big picture questions about motivations and beliefs and fears. The things that tell you what drives that character. Who they really are inside. Those questions get you thinking more deeply about the character.
Take a seat on the couch, character.
There is another way to get deep into your character’s head and ponder questions about them. The internet is full of quizzes and questionnaires. From the “Which Starbucks Coffee Are You?” type to in depth personality assessments. The latter is more useful here, though a couple of the former might be fun too…
What you do is find a test – psychological, personality, or about social and political beliefs and answer it as if you were your character taking the quiz. (Just make sure the results aren’t to be included in anyone’s research or official stats.) You aren’t so much interested in the results it comes out with at the end (You’re a libertarian/INJP/psychopath) as the questions on the way, because they are bound to ask things you haven’t figured out about your character yet. Not only does that get you thinking, but also puts the question in context, so you can give the character a consistent set of beliefs – not veering wildly all over the political and psychological spectrum.
Ones that give scenarios and ask how your character would react are useful too. Even if they are not likely to occur in that character’s world, (“How would your character react to losing his job? Hmmm… destroy Jotunheim?”) just thinking about them is helpful anyway.
So don’t be put off the character sheets. Find one you like and make it a living document, constantly added to and updated. Review it often. Use it to keep the facts straight (“how come he had three brothers at the start of this story and now has twin sisters instead?”) but also to get into the character’s mind and learn what really makes them tick.