Back in 2010, I wrote a series of blogs called “The questions I ask myself…” which was, not surprisingly, about questions I ask myself about characters. If you want a reference, go here, here, and here. Apparently, someone went through the series the other day because I received this question:
Is this how you start your characters or end your characters? I’m trying to get started writing a novel and I’m not sure where to begin.
Unfortunately, as the email wasn’t signed and it was one of those string-of-numbers@qq emails, I have absolutely no idea who sent the question. Whoever it was, thanks for asking. I’m always happy to answer questions.
No, those character questions are not how I start. I write them in the character’s voice well after I know them. None of my characters are one-offs except for background characters. They all appear in multiple stories, chapters, situations, or books. The character questions are how I keep track of all the little details.
See, the way I work with writing is a little different. I know many people who have a message, situation, or world first. Others outline the plot to varying degrees of detail. I even know someone who pins note cards all over their house with character names, places, and events all colour coded and crazy looking. He writes awesome stories, but his wife is a very patient woman. No matter how they do it, it allows them to create people that fit what they’re trying to say.
I am the only person I know who works backwards so to speak. My characters show up first. Sometimes they talk to me and insist I write down their stories immediately, sometimes they kick around inside my head for months or years. No matter what, once I get them talking, I can see the world like a viewer at the movies, only I have more details than you’ll ever want to know as a reader. I can tell you how many earthworms are on the ground and why that one seagull is always trying to steal your food. Sometimes it’s helpful, sometimes annoying. However, from one situation to the next over the course of a series, people and places change. Therefore, it’s helpful for me to have character sheets and place maps where I go back and finalize things. I generally do this after the first draft is written down or when a character stops talking to me and I need to get going again. It helps me make sure I’m consistent for the editing rounds–of which there are many–and not mixing in the changes that have occurred as I’ve continued writing.
So, in answer to your question: No. The sheets are not how I begin. They’re simply a questionnaire full of facts to help me be consistent. As to where you should start, what is in your head? If you don’t know your characters yet, don’t stress. Start with what you know.