Asking for a friend - Character Dossiers
Welcome readers! As mentioned in my December newsletter, I am starting a new section on
my blog/website called... yep... Asking for a friend. So without further ado... on with the question.
I've read and heard that creating a dossier for every character is critical for a well rounded character. Do you agree with this? If not why? If so do you create one for every character?
The short answer to your question is yes*, however, before I delve into that asterisk, let me first explain what a character dossier is for those that may not be familiar with the terminology. A character dossier, aka character sketch or character sheet is the (sometimes exceptionally thorough) biography of a character. For those RPGers reading this, it's not unlike creating a backstory for a playing character, only dialed all the way up.
There are dozens of variations of dossiers available on the internet, and they can be as broad, or as granular as a writer wants. The shortest I've seen is 25 questions, while the longest exceed 100. I'm talking questions asking if s/he/they puts their pants on with the right or left leg first, which I'd like to point out is not without merit. If a character in a novel has OCD it may be helpful for the author to know when they dress they start from the right side but they always open doors with their left hand.
Now, back to that asterisk. When I first started writing with the goal to become a published author, (meaning I was no longer writing just to get an idea out of my head, but wanted to actually finish a story), I scoured the internet for the perfect dossier and completed one for each MCs (main characters) and the SCs (supporting characters) that had a significant role in the story I wanted to tell. I could spend upwards of a week creating all the dossiers I believed were required only for the story I was working on to eventually go no where (the reason for this may be answered in a different AfaF).
After a while I felt like I was spending unnecessary energy on the dossiers, but I continued (and continue) to believe some type of character creation process is essential to building strong characters that in turn create a strong story. Just like real life, MCs and SCs need to have backstories to create who they are. To dictate how they reaction and act to stimuli. In the Cambion Rider Chronicle series, Veronica battles with jealously when she meets one of Lachlan's former lovers because her insecurity of being cheated on, something she experienced in her past by her fiancé, is triggered. If I didn't create this nugget in her history, I may have given her a different motivation driving a different reaction.
The goal is to find that zen place that works. For me, it's a mixture of knowing some things in the beginning, and discovering other things as I go along. For me, this is particularly freeing. Dossiers are filled with questions asking for favorite color, favorite food, ideal date night... I don't know about you, but my favorite color is red, except when it's purple, though somedays it can be orange. My favorite food is anything potato unless we're talking chocolates, homemade sugar cookies, raw carrots, or caramel corn from Garretts when I've not had it for several months. And depending on my mood, my ideal date can be a solo venture with a bowl of mint chip and the remote. Once I gave myself permission to not know everything about my characters, they became richer and more complex.
I also moved away from pre-created word doc type dossier and started keeping track of things on spreadsheets. This fits my style better. It's not as restricting and it allows me to create relevant columns that are easy to search if I need to refer back to something.
Does every character need a "dossier"? For the MCs the obvious answer is yes. For SCs it is surprisingly (or not surprisingly) yes, because sometimes the direction my story takes surprises me. In After the Flesh, Komen was only supposed to appear one time in one chapter. By the time I finished the novel he, made his way into six chapters. Because I knew his character, I was able to use him in situation to make a richer connection in the story, which hopefully created a more interesting story for my readers.
Also, keep in mind not all SCs have to be created equally, with equally knowledge/detail. Komen's depth is not as deep as Koi and Oren, (two other dragons in the series). It may never be and I'm okay with that. Koi and Oren are much more embedded in the novels than Komen so it may not be necessary for him to flesh him out to the same level. But Komen does have a row on the supporting character tab of my cambion rider chronicles spreadsheet.
Now, while I did poke a bit of fun at dossiers for the "favorite fill in the blank" questions, there are meaningful questions that can be found in some such as "what's the worse thing your character has ever done" or "would your character ever commit a felony"? These are good things to know. It's good to know if your MC would die for someone, kill for someone, both, or neither and why.
The TL;DR answer... knowing the backstory of characters is important for writers to creating a good story and dossiers help establish this, but don't get trapped in the structure (or the 100+ questions). Dossiers are just one of the tools in a writer's tool chest. If a pre-created structured one doesn't work, create one that does.