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Name, Rank, Serial Number

March 26, 2010

I have to admit that the one thing that clinched my decision to do Script Frenzy was the many worksheets available on their site. I love worksheets.  Every character worth a damn in my fiction was once a mere series of answers to straightforward questions on a character development form.

I’m not entirely sure why I take such delight in answering questions about fictional people. I did always enjoy filling out lengthy internet quizzes about myself,  so maybe it stems from that. There’s something soothing about questions that have easy answers.  Plus, I also enjoy things that are organized, neat and numbered on a page (except for taxes, I don’t enjoy those).  My enjoyment of nicely organized worksheets increases in direct correlation to how disorganized I am, as well. Usually when I’m starting to put together new character ideas, I am very very disorganized.  “So…there’s this guy, maybe he wears a hat, and he can’t stand birds, not like the British slang term for a woman, but actual birds, you know, with legs…wait…”

Yes, that is basically how it goes.

On a character worksheet, all of that information could be easily condensed and organized. “Typical outfit for him to wear:  Hat.” “Dislikes: birds with legs.” Perfect.

"Chekov, Pavel. Rank: admiral!"

Of course, worksheets can cause problems too. First, they only work for you if you put a lot of work into them. If the question on the sheet is “What is his favorite food?” and I write down “eggs” (this is a different character now, not the bird-hater. I think he would cry if you made him eat an egg. See how much I’ve learned about him already? And he’s not even a real character. That’s right, he’s a fake fictional person.), I’m kind of doing myself a disservice. What kind of eggs? Scrambled, over easy, raw, ostrich? Fossilized dinosaur eggs? Chinese hundred year old eggs that give him a bizarre avian disease? (There are those birds again. Maybe this is the same character. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t like birds…)

So, the more work I put in to the worksheet, the more I know about my character. This is both a good and a bad thing.  Knowing that his stepfather worked at a Sesame Street theme park and used to beat him while wearing the Big Bird costume is good. It explains that irrational fear of birds he has. But, knowing that his prom date’s name was Rachel, his favorite item of clothing is those gorilla slippers Aunt Emily gave him five years ago, and that he has a birthmark shaped like a snowman on his inner thigh  is a double-edged sword.

I don’t know about most other writers, but when I know something about my characters, even a tiny detail, I want everyone else to know about it too. I want to share that snowman-shaped birthmark with the world! Working one detail in is not a problem; I can think of a million scenarios where  someone would inquire about the character’s birthmark. Maybe he has a new girlfriend he’s sleeping with for the first time and she sees it. Maybe he has a physical and the nurse makes a joke about it. Maybe he’s a professional swimmer and spends most of his time in a Speedo with his birthmark visible.

The problem arises when I decide I need to work in all the little details. Instead of just writing my story, I start trying to come up with ways to work as many chunks of meaningless information into it as I possibly can. Everything starts to sound a tad unnatural and my main character is suddenly wearing his gorilla slippers to a swim meet while reminiscing about Rachel and eating a hard-boiled egg.

So, as excited as I am about filling out these worksheets, I need to not get carried away. Just because I have a vast treasure trove of details about a character doesn’t mean that they all need to be explicitly stated in the script. Background details can inform the way the character acts and interacts without me having to bang the audience over the head with them…although, I might have to write that scene about Big Bird now. To me, there’s nothing funnier than a beloved childhood icon with whiskey on his breath.

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