I’ve never been a fan of those character spreadsheets. For the most part, I don’t particularly care if my character has super-purple eyes and waist-length golden hair, except for purposes of continuity throughout the story (little facts like that escape me all the time; in Burning Eden, I had a town change its name from Newtown to Newton to Newburg and back again over the course of the story, and at least one character obviously had corneal replacements). Anyway, I feel like all they do is focus on the most trivial aspects of character; I don’t give a damn what their favorite pizza topping is; more important to me is how they’d react if someone handed them the crown and said, “Go have fun.” Or how they behave in public as opposed to private; those are the interesting things that make characters real and not just words on a piece of paper (or computer screen, fwiw).
I’m 20,000 words into my latest project, a renaissance-ish fantasy where science and religion are just starting to come up against each other. I hit a snag when I realized that I’d just filled a council room full of blah people who all sounded and acted the same, and even though the story wasn’t from any of their POVs, I still had no idea what they wanted, or why they wanted it.
So I thought I’d try a little exercise to see if I couldn’t give some of my bit-players a bit of personality. I picked six of them (six seemed a good number, and allowed me to get a reasonable cross-section of them), and then five situations for them to be (dinner in public, dinner in private, when approached by a supplicant, when receiving good news, and when receiving bad news), and then set out to write little scenelets for each of them, a thousand words per scenario. It’s been decent fun, to be perfectly honest. I now know a lot more about these six men, definitely far more than I’d learn from filling out one of those character sheets.
But it occurred to me that what I’m doing really isn’t much better than literary masturbation – none of these words are actually going to be useful in a WIP sense. They’re not going to be included in any form, because they’re written pretty rough. This was just an opportunity for me to test them out and see what kinds of things I could think of. So, in sum, I will shortly have 30,000 words of text whose only purpose was for me to play with my characters. Really, isn’t that almost the definition of masturbation (substituting some words here and there, of course).
Oh well. Now that they’re written, I can hardly unwrite them, or get back the time spent doing it. All I can hope is that turns out to be worth it and the WIP is the better for me knowing that the head of the Senate is gay, the high priest is dying of stomach cancer, and the heir’s best friend is a woman-beater.