Writers, Why Are Character Lists a Waste of Time?


Different writers have different takes on building characters.

Last week you read Melody Kaufmann’s take on Characterization, and this week we have writer Derek Flynn with his take.  Would love to hear what other writers think…tell us your take in the comments!

Handing over the blog to Derek….

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Characters, characters

Characters, characters

As aspiring writers, we all search out any and all advice on writing that we can find. When I started writing seriously, one of the pieces of advice that I saw a lot (when it came to creating characters) was to compile a list of your character’s traits, likes, dislikes, etc. Often, you would find huge lengthy lists which you were to fill in so as to get to “know” your character better. Having written for a number of years now, I can safely say these “character lists” are a complete waste of time. (In fact, they’re up there with the “Write what you know” rule. If we all only wrote what we know, there’d be no science-fiction, no fantasy, no horror, and so on. All we’d have is novels where people went to work every day, watched some TV at night, and went to the cinema at weekends. Exciting!)

Now, before I go any further, I’m not here to disabuse anyone of any techniques that work for them. Whatever floats your boat. This is just my two cents.

So why are “character lists” a waste of time?

In my time on Twitter, I’ve seen so many writers talk about a voice or a character entering their heads and how they just had to tell that character’s story.

This is very true. It happens to us all as writers; we’re inspired to write a character’s story. And we KNOW the character. We must do. They’ve inspired us enough to want to tell their story after all. We don’t know everything about them. We may not know what kind of car they drive, what they eat for breakfast or what TV shows they watch, but we know the kind of person they are. And that’s enough to begin with.

We can start the story there and as we write we will find out more about the character. Indeed, that’s the fun: watching the character grow organically as you tell the story, rather than requiring them to meet some preset list of traits. Surely, if we want to create believable characters – characters that readers will empathise with – they should react to the situations we place them in, rather than merely have them ticking off a checklist? (Drives a Porsche? Check. Eats muesli? Check. Watches True Blood? Check.)

Joseph Campbell famously outlined the journey of the “hero” character in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, describing a set of stages that is common to all myths and stories.

And while this may be the case – while there may only be a finite number of plots or character types – the fact is, every character is different. Every character should react in their own idiosyncratic way to whatever situation they find themselves in.

As author Neil Gaiman has said: “I think I got about half way through The Hero with a Thousand Faces and found myself thinking if this is true – I don’t want to know … I’d rather do it because it’s true and because I accidentally wind up creating something that falls into this pattern than be told what the pattern is.” And I have to say, I agree with him.

Am I wrong? (It’s very possible. It wouldn’t be the first time.) Let me know what you think in the comments below.

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Derek Flynn

Derek Flynn

Derek Flynn is an Irish writer and musician. He’s been published in a number of publications, including The Irish Times, and was First Runner-Up in the 2011 J. G. Farrell Award for Best Novel-In-Progress. His writing/music blog – ‘Rant, with Occasional Music’ – can be found here . You can also find him on  Twitter .

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27 thoughts on “Writers, Why Are Character Lists a Waste of Time?

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  3. Hmmm… I don’t know if you’re right or wrong, but I have to admit that I haven’t ever got very far with character lists! All I want to do is WRITE THE STORY, so sitting down and puzzling my character out isn’t that enticing!
    But I do agree with Nicole’s comment. I can see how it would be important for a series, so that you know all relevant details about a character, and can work them into later stories, if and where necessary (and there’s the reason I need to start doing this, as I’ve just begun writing a series…).
    Thank you for the post!

  4. Character lists are not a waste of time if they are necessary for a particular style of writing. My take on this matter is similar to that of what Arlee Bird mentioned in his comment, where it depends on what is being written.

    If I’m writing a short story, then character lists are not exactly necessary because I only need to know basic things such as gender, position in the story and name but if I’m writing a series of stories, then character lists are essential because the history of the character, and other traits become important to the progression of the story and his or her relation to other characters in the story.

    Using television as an example, this is why soap operas have characters with deep rooted histories and characteristics and such, but a short mini-series or simplistic show such as Seinfeld can go off of basic character descriptions and then the characters can develop later on as they go along with the story.

    Using movies as an example, this is why a franchise such as “James Bond,” “Austin Powers” or “Die-Hard” could utilize character lists, because they can always introduce new parts of a story or a character’s background, in the next sequel or installment, whereas a movie like “The Social Network” or “Knocked Up” or “Friends with Benefits” don’t really need extensive character lists.

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  6. I don’t make lists in advance, but like some others I’ll jot down details I want to remember about a character. They tend to be physical things, or events in their history, not traits. The sort of stuff that can lead to continuity errors if you forget it, especially in a later book in the same series. But analysing your character like giving them an interview? Never!

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  8. I’ve never been able to use traditional character lists, but I also couldn’t write a character list on myself. My reaction and temperament are as fluid as the situation I’m in. If you catch me at the wrong/right moment I might react as a total witch, indifferent or sweet as pie. I do use a rough character list, but it’s just to keep track of small details: Physical traits, a specific like/dislike, allergies, and stuff like that.

  9. What a wonderful post! I have always felt guilty about not doing the character sheets, but for me it takes all the fun out of writing. It’s nice to know I’m not the only who starts writing first and figures it out along the way.

  10. I agree. I can’t make lists – I’ve tried. But, no matter how hard I’ve tried, I can’t really see the character until I start writing him/her.

    Needless to say, I’ve given up on trying. I usually do a basic (VERY rough) brain-stormy type outline of the character, plot, etc. (i.e. “Okay, so I know it’s a girl, in her teens, and gremlins are gonna try and eat her, after they’ve destroyed the world’s cheese supply – something like that). But, even with the chaotic notes drawn up, everything is subject to change, once I start writing it all down. And, I like that!

    I think I would be terribly bored if I knew every little detail, prior to letting it fly out of my head and on to the paper.

  11. I never have used them, but I tried one recently and thought of things about the character that I might not have thought of otherwise. I haven’t decided if it’s a good thing yet. My process is pretty fluid; I’m never beyond ditching everything, so the character worksheet may get tossed.

    Your mention of “show don’t tell” piqued my interest. I blogged about what that rule means to me a few weeks back. http://wendysrusso.blogspot.com/2011/11/my-storytelling-approach-two-basic.html

  12. Like you say, I don’t want to put down anyone’s approach either. We’re all different. But for me, working from a character list feels completely contrived. I always have a strong sense of the character’s voice in my head before I start, but after that, I like to put my characters into the ol’ pressure cooker, as they say, and see how they cook.

    I always find my characters doing things I hadn’t anticipated. I love it when they surprise me, or utter things I never thought I’d hear them say. As they grow, I grow and the story grows.

  13. I agree. My characters are like imaginary friends. They are that real to me. If I had to create or define them by the use of a list of made-up likes and dislikes, I doubt I could make them come alive on the page.

  14. Randi: Couldn’t agree more. I like to see where characters will take us if we let them.

    Arlee Bird: Oh, I’m all for timelines Lee, I think they’re essential.

    Elizabeth Hunter: Hi Elizabeth. You’re brill, you know, always checking out my blog posts! Thanks :) And I won’t say the story ALWAYS starts with character for me, but it’s certainly vital.

    J.L. Campbell: Hi J.L. Exactly. As I said in the post, whatever floats your boat. :)

    Thomas Burchfield: Yeah, I can understand how character descriptions would be handy, but not what they had for breakfast! :)

    susan elliot wright: What a great analogy. Thanks Susan.

    Emerald Barnes: Hi Emerald (great name!) Yeah, as I said, I can see how that would be useful. Thanks for the lovely comment.

    Anke Wehner: Yeah, that’s a good point, Anke.

    Content Writers: Thank you!

    Alex J. Cavanaugh: Oh, I’m an outliner too, Alex, a lot of the time. Just can’t get that detailed!

    Lesann: Yeah, I’m with you on the character description stuff. I sometimes ending up mixing that stuff up too!

    lyrawither: Lists – like research – are a great way to procrastinate

  15. I don’t like to disagree but in this case i feel I must – respectfully. If it were true that if we know the character’s story we must also therefore know the character no one would ever get criticised for having flat or one-dimensional characters. And that happens. I know, because I was on the receiving end of it.

    Even if it were true that to know the story means you know your character, that’s ONLY your protagonist. And maybe the anatgaonist. What about supporting characters? They also must not be flat.

    I never used character sheets – until this year. As soon as I did, I found it was easier to spot in my MS where my character had not acted true to her character. As soon as I did, I realised my anatgonist needed a motivation – or at least, one more clearly defined than I had to date.

    The trick with a character sheet is NOT to make it too long-winded. Only important details should be included.

    I agree completely about the Hero’s Journey though. I found that completely unhelpful. I can’t think of my novel in those terms.

    As for ‘write what you know’… I DO write what I know. And what I know is fantasy :-)

  16. I enjoy the occasional list, but for me they are more useful as a way of keeping the main details about characters in one place. It is helpful if I cannot quite remember some detail about a character. I rarely use lists, but they have their uses.

    That said, I agree that it can lead you to sit there obsessing about some list, when you should be writing. And it’s not a good way to develop a character, or at least not for me. But when that voice in your head tells you that this one character of yours likes leaving his backdoor slightly ajar so that his pet can get out in the garden for some air, that might be important to remember. :)

  17. I don’t use character sheets before I write, but I do add details to a chart as I progress. Getting to know a character is like getting to know a new person (for me), and I find out things, sometimes contradictory stuff that I wouldn’t have thought to include until my character is faced with some issue or crisis.

    I do like having a details chart where I keep track of stuff or I wind up changing silly stuff like eye color and freckles halfway through…. *facepalm*

    Finding what works for you and your process, is what really matters and trying on all kinds of shoes let’s you find the write fit. But you already said that. = )

  18. Interesting. I do jot down basics like a character’s background, his temperament, his faults and strengths, and his goals. But the really detailed stuff comes as I write it.
    Sorry, I need a plan before I start writing. Yeah, I’m an outliner as well.

  19. Depends a lot on the list. Stuff about favourite TV series and suchlike tends to be not even applicable if you write fantasy. A question reminding me that I should maybe consider if the character has living parents helps to not write only apparent orphans. ;)

  20. The only thing I write down about my characters is physical traits so I won’t confuse them later on. I don’t think they should have set traits either. As with humans, characters favorite whatever changes all the time. That’s my opinion anyway. :) Great post!

  21. I agree! You can no more impose a personality on your character than you can on a newborn baby. The fictional character, like the real-life child, develops and grows as a result of his or her experiences and contacts. I just put my characters in a situation and see how they react.

  22. I draw up character lists mostly to keep track of things and help with continuity. Sometimes, if I get a little lost, (a character with a rich head if brown hair suddenly goes bald; or if there’s a problem with motivation, etc.) I’ll refer to them, but I do believe in allowing the character and the world through which s/he struggles take me where things needs to go. I can’t imagine holding my breath until everything is perfect before even typing one letter.

  23. Interesting take. I do use charts, but the characters really don’t fit in with a list of qualities I’ve come up with. Once I visualize the characters, they take on their unique traits and these help me come up with a clearer picture of who they are. They do grow and change, but for me the lists also help me keep things straight, without having to go do mind searches on the stuff they like, etc. To each his own, I guess.

  24. I guess it could depend on what is being written and the nature of the writer. I’m sure I could think up some defenses for making the lists, but I don’t do it and don’t think I would do it. Now, I think making out a timeline is very helpful to keep the continuity of the story accurate. I also like to carefully map out the story geographically to be sure that I am being accurate when I’m dealing with real places–not good if a character leaves Chicago after breakfast driving to Miami and gets there in time for lunch on the same day.

    Lee
    Blogging from A to Z

  25. I agree wholeheartedly. I used to make lists because I thought I had to know every single detail about my characters before I penned a single page. One of the many gifts I’ve taken away from experiences like NaNoWriMo, is that I discover my characters best through writing their stories. When I give them the freedom to be mysterious, as opposed to boxing them in, I find they become richer, more alive–more real.

    Thanks for the great article!

I love comments, and I always visit back. Blogging is all about being a part of a community, and communities are about communication! Tweet me up @damyantig !

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