Build & Control Characters: Dungeon Style

Critical HitA few weeks ago I shared a post about how I sometimes (when bored or low on inspiration/creativity) use dice to create chaos for my characters.  Letting the roll of of the die determine how effective a character is at coping with a situation.  If you missed that day – it’s here.  Today I wanted to talk about how I use character sheets to keep track of characters, build them, manage what they are carrying/wearing, and also how I sometimes use dice to build minions.

This method hearkens back to my nerd roots, and nights spent playing Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) down in the basement with my best buddies.  If you have no concept of what D&D is, give episode one of Stranger Things a try on Netflix (if you haven’t watched this series, you can thank me later).

First, I thought I would show you an example of what a character sheets looks like.  You can simply use a search engine and type, “Dungeons and Dragons Character Sheet,” to find endless variations.  Or, if you are already keen to the concept, make you own.

character sheet.jpg

Now you have a rough concept of what character sheets look like (if you had no idea what I was rambling on about before).  Like I mentioned earlier, these are just two variations – there are hundreds of them online you can print out.  Now let’s tackle some uses of them.

arrows.jpgManage Inventory.  Depending on the setting of your book, gear (the things your character carries) might really matter.  In the novel I am finishing up now, Wastelander, gear is limited.  People have to scavenge and build the things they need.  One of my Alpha Readers is quick to point out things like, “Dude, are you sure Jim has arrows left?” or, “Why didn’t they use [insert item]?”.

These are important continuity issues that must be addressed.  When I get into a writing rhythm, I don’t like to scroll back pages to try to recount how many of an item is left.  I just take a guess and move forward and tell myself I’ll fix it in rewrites. Using a character sheet can help you keep track of those items and speed you right along.

character template.jpgWhat the heck does you character look like?  I’m not a big fan of blasting out two or three paragraphs describing characters as they show up in the book, but that doesn’t mean I don’t slowly reveal how the character looks.  I like to sprinkle description in dialogue and narrative to slowly build the character over time.

A character sheet is an easy way to record what your character is wearing and some of their physical traits.  If you are an artist (lucky) you can sketch them out.  By having this quick reference handy while you write you can sprinkle in character description along with dialogue and narrative as beats (i.e. “My hand shot up to the black leather stitching of my eye patch.  It was still there.”).

It also lets you keep track of the condition of what they are wearing.  This is another continuity issue you can run into.  Alpha Reader: “Bro, he fell down a cliff last chapter.  Shouldn’t his clothes/gear be messed up now?” Yes Alpha Reader, they should be.

strength.pngQuick reference for character statistics.  While you may have a cement foundation built for how your main character looks and acts, some of those supporting characters may not be as fully developed.  Character sheets can allow you to record character statistics (i.e. Strength, Charisma, Intelligence, Dexterity, Constitution).

Maybe you are building a supporting character and aren’t sure what they should look like just yet?  Grab some die, give them roll, and start assigning values.  What makes D&D fun is the characters are built around luck.  When you first generate a character in D&D you had to roll die/dice to determine those statistics, as you play through the game you are now saddled with those traits.

diceGenerate Characters.  Maybe you need to make some minions.  Here’s an easy way to do it.

Let’s say you are using two six-sided dice.  The worst number you could roll would be a 2 and the best would be 12.  So if you are determining Strength (can they punch through walls and carry cars), Constitution (do they stay healthy or does a paper cut cause massive infection), Dexterity (how nimble are they), Charisma (can they talk their way out of situations), and Intelligence (master tactician) – you have five statistics to work with.

Roll five times and record the numbers.  Then assign those totals to the character however you want.  Now you are saddled with a character that is competent at some things, and terrible at others.

Use sheet to record character arc.  I recently wrote a post on character arcs here.  If you are using character sheets to keep track of your characters you can also record important things that happen to them as you write.

Character Arc TrackerAt the close of a chapter I like to scribble down things like, “Drake realizes so-and-so is betraying him.”  Doing this gives you a quick reference to look at as you write.  You can, at a glance, recall important things that have already happened to a character.  This should help you navigate them through the story in a more believable manner.

That’s it for character sheets.  For me, I like physical things like character sheets.  References and tangible items help me sink into the world I am creating.  Often times, having a quick reference to guide me, helps me move my characters in a believable manner.  It is also nice when you are managing a host of characters.  It can get tough to keep track of everything when we fall into our worlds, tools like this can act like a compass.

Do you use character sheets?  Do you have some other method of keeping track of your wandering character?  I’d love to hear about it.  I’m always looking to improve my craft.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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21 responses

  1. Hmm nice post

    Usually, I create a character sheet where I have their description, occupation, and something that makes them different from others. For one novel, I keep track of what my character did by time frame. Since the story is day by day, each day has notes about what happens, that also helps with connecting my timeline to chapters and then able to create chapter summaries. Chapter summaries help as well…oh that can be my tip for next thursday lol

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great tips, Corey! I also use a character sheet, though mainly to record physical or dialogue tics. My biggest fear is that my characters will all sound the same if you removed the speaker attributions, so keeping track of habits and mannerisms allows me to ramp up the uniqueness of each character.

    Your post reminds me to track continuity issues as well. I was just writing a scene where a character was shot in the leg in one chapter but was back to sprinting in the next. Something that could easily be fixed through tracking. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I mess up continuity all the time – it’s my gift. The character sheets seem to help (if only slightly). Plus I feel spiffy with my illustrated little binders with character information. I imagine with your artistic gifts you could make some pretty slick illustrated character sheets.

      Loved your latest Sorrowbacon installment. Need to swing in and see what you are blogging about.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Glad you liked the comic! Yes, let’s keep using those character sheets and steadily improve. Thanks for the compliment. I will post some sketches up on the blog. It’ll be cool to see your illustrated binders as well!

        Liked by 1 person

    • I like tools that get me out of my head sometimes. Toys, dice, and doodle covered papers get me to look at problems from different angles. And more importantly, they make it more fun.

      Also anything that saves me from endlessly scrolling backwards in my manuscript, or having to pound Control+F, makes me happy.

      Thanks for swinging by.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I use a series bible which I continually update to track my characters…. Though, I do use sand tables to track the lay of the land, scene wise. Basically, I used what I learned as an 11B and make it work for me in daily life!! My Platoon Daddy would be proud! 😛

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Clever, Corey. I’ve got it fixed in my mind how the main characters should be, but the supportive cast I’m still hazy about. Dice just might do it. I’ll have to get my husband to bring out him D & D stuff from the depths of the closet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If anything, you will have a heck of a lot of fun playing with some concepts. I think that’s important. Every now and then we need to step back from the work and look at it with new and creative eyes. Also, when you take your work and play with it in a different medium, interesting and unexpected things can happen.

      Best of luck to you and thanks for swinging by to read my musings.


  5. I see the attraction of this method–but, alas, using D&D or Pathfindernever really worked for me. That said, I can tell you if a given character is Lawful Neutral or Chaotic Good or what have you. (And then I’ll wax poetic on their Enneagram.)

    I think my problem is that I get bogged down in detail–if my character can actually handle a salmon ladder, does that mean their Strength is a 15 or a 16 or what? And if my character can barely handle one push up, is that a 7 or an 8? (This stuff is even harder for me with more abstract abilities like Charisma.)

    As you said, this type of character sheet is only one example. Someday I might try something more like the Fate system, which tends to be more open, flexible and a whole lot less nit-picky.


    • If you refer to page 137 of the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master’s Bible, 3rd Edition, twice abridged, limited release, illustrated version (it HAS to be the illustrated version) – you would clearly see that the salmon ladder requires a combined strength score of at least 17…I’m just saying.

      I’m just kidding, but it highlights the issue of details like you were talking about. This is the mud we wade into when it comes to playing with D&D type creative tools.

      Most of the concepts I employ from D&D are just creative tricks to jolt my brain when the gears are stuck. Sometimes, the act of writing (despite what everyone says) is what stops me from writing. A fuse blows and I stare at the screen. If I start going through physical things in the “real” world (dice, character sheets, little figurines) those cogs start to turn.

      While I may not be focused on the act of writing, I am focusing on the world of my story. Thus, the creative juices start to worm their way in and lubricate those broken gears. Then when I sit back down to write, the words start coming more easily.

      For me, writing should be something I enjoy. I try to find as many tools and tricks I can use to continue allowing it to be so I’m not saying just because it’s fun it’s easy for me. But I’m more likely to work on something if I have fun doing the work – if that makes any sense at all.

      Thanks again for all the reading and comments today – you rock.


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