Using Mind Maps instead of character sheets

I hate character sheets

There, I said it. They can be fun to write out all of the details, but I never end up with something useful that helps me write my story. There are so many questions that have nothing to do with the story. I used to think somehow knowing every little detail would help me write a more realistic character. It didn’t. I don’t know the exact date of my characters birthday. If I decide to add a birthday party scene, I might think about it, but his birthday adds nothing to his character development at this time.

One size does not fit all

When I take other people’s charts, it feels like I’m wearing someone else’s shoes. And this person somehow manages to have a shoe size that’s both too big and too small at the same time. There will be several details I don’t need to fill in, but they needed to know in their stories. And they don’t contain details I really do need to know.
I could make my own, but honestly, I’d hate that too. There are some details I need to know about some characters, but I don’t need to know them for other characters. I don’t want to create a different sheet for each character and then fill it out.

Character sheets compartmentalize aspects that should weave together

I don’t like having a special space for my character flaws. I don’t like having my character’s personality picked apart and separated into strengths and flaws.
  •  I think doing this can make a character have flaws and strengths that are hard to see how deeply it affects their life or the plot
  • Many people will overlook flaws and put them in only at the last minute when they fear their character is a Mary Sue. They throw in one flaw that doesn’t hinder them in their goals or change the story in any way. Clumsiness is a common tacked on flaw. Every now and then, they stumble, but it doesn’t have any purpose except to show the character has a flaw.
  •  It also can cause characters that have flaws and strengths that are alright on their own, but don’t mesh well together. The character becomes nothing but a bag of quirks and jerks that just happen.
I have a different way of thinking of these things. I think of flaws as little antagonists or villains working to sabotage the character and work against the character’s chance at a happy ending. The flaws have to be deep down and wrapped up in their characters in such a way that they naturally mix in the strengths. Quirks are not a series of gestures. They are the unique ways these strengths and flaws show their presence from time to time.

There are important things you might need to know about a character that won’t fit into a character sheet.

Sometimes while browsing the web, poking around on Pinterest, you find something that reminds you of your character. It’s not something specific. It’s just a feeling. I was listening to some music on YouTube, when this song came on that reminded me of my main character’s love interest. It’s Just Get Along. It’s an improv collaboration between MC Mooks and a few of his friends. It’s  perfect for Barrie.
  • Barrie is a musician, he plays several instruments, and he sings. When I first heard Steven Bennet’s singing, I knew that’s exactly what Barrie’s  singing voice sounded like. It also gives me a gist of what his speaking voice is like. I’ve also incorporated many of the gestures that Bennet uses into Barrie’s mannerisms. I don’t know for sure, but I guess this guy might have the same gentle and shy demeanor of Barrie and share his positive, hopeful outlook on life.
  • My main character is a percussionist. Long before they have a romantic relationship, they play together in the shows and on the train to pass the time. Reddy has disabilities that make it impossible for him to freestyle, but if he could, this is likely the topic he’d pick and would share many of the ideas he’d share about his life experience.
  •  Mooks and  Bennet aren’t lovers. But you can tell they are friends and have an active chemistry and energy together. I want the two characters to have a relationship like that at first just with music, but it creeps into their entire friendship. 
  • The song is recorded on a public transit car. This entire story is the characters riding across the country on a train, stopping in various towns and performing.
  • For some reasons I won’t get into now, Barrie is instantly disliked by everyone on the train — including my main character. He’s different, and they don’t think he belongs there. The other characters don’t know that Barrie doesn’t feel like he fits in anywhere. He’s tired of being the odd and different person in every group he encounters. It’s always for different reasons. He wishes everyone could just get along with people from diverse backgrounds.
  • The way the song sounds matches Barrie’s general mood and personality. I don’t know exactly why. Something about sort of folksy music, the instruments, the way the musicians interact together. It’s not just Barrie. The song sums up the mood the entire caravan feels when Barrie is around, and they finally accept him as one of the group. The song shows the positive effect Barrie can have on people when he gains confidence and gets less socially awkward as the train travels.

This one song says more about Barrie than any character sheet could say. It doesn’t really fit in. I could say it’s a theme song, but then I’d feel obligated to find theme songs for Reddy, the main character, and the other two major supporting characters. It wouldn’t be natural. I stumbled across this song by accident, and it IS Barrie. It’s not just a theme song.

I use mind maps

Let me show you how they work. I have a sheet with a special map for the main and the two supporting characters. Instead of a detailed physical description, I have a picture of someone I found in a google search that resembles this person.  I also have several pictures of physical features so that I can have a composite image of what that character looks like. Unfortunately, I had to blur out the photographs, because they are almost all copyright protected. I can use them to use them privately for my work, but I can’t show them to you. I promise that my characters are not fuzzy blobs.
This is my main character. These are the four major aspects of his life.
  • Pyro is the name for the type of mage he is. It is the primary way he identifies himself because it affects the quality of his life more than anything else. There are a few positive affects, but most of them have an adverse affect on the quality of life. You’ll see why soon enough
  • He is a professional performer. He’s a musician. While he’s got talent and creativity, he isn’t outstanding. His minor fame comes from his stage presence, charisma and one of the only pyros in his world who is a musician instead of a professional fighter. This is the most positive aspect of his character and would be the main one if his status as a pyro didn’t firmly shape his life and give him several struggles to overcome.
  • His wealthy parents are the reason that he lives differently than other pyros. He has several advantages in life because his parents could afford to take care of him instead of abandoning him as a baby. Simply having parents is nearly unheard of for pyros. Having parents as fabulously wealthy as his sets him apart from just about everyone he knows. It’s not a powerful ongoing influence, but it’s significant because he wouldn’t have his personality without them.
  • His sexual orientation isn’t much of an impact on his life, except that the romance in the story is a major part of the plot.  I focus less on the orientation and more on how the characters express it. Reddy is outgoing and flirty. No one has ever mistakenly thought he had the interest in women. Barrie, on the other hand, is shy and reserved. He’s not in the closet, but he rarely dates and almost never flirts. You might see how and why this makes things difficult to start a romance between them.

I’ve opened up the pyro aspect of his personality. Now it’s more clear why this has the strongest influence on his life.

  • In my world mage ability is caused by a difference in the brain that also causes all sorts of disabilities for the person. The stronger raw mage ability someone has, the more disabled they are. Pyros have an extremely strong natural ability for magic, but they are severely disabled by it. He needs expensive equipment to keep him alive and mobile. He has cognitive deficits that are similar to several different learning disabilities.
  • His disabilities cause him to look strikingly different than other people. The biggest difference is that he looks like he’s on fire all of the time. Even though people know it’s just an illusion, their natural instinct is to get startled or panic when they first see him. Even his closest friends most familiar with him will occasionally flinch if they see him out of the corner of their eye. Because of this, there are many legal  restrictions on pyros . They aren’t generally allowed in crowded public places. There are also several negative stereotypes people have about pyros.
  • Even with fabulously wealthy parents. There came a point in Reddy’s life where his parents had no practical means of keeping him alive. They had to send him to a mage academy. It’s not an academy. It’s more of a warehouse to store these children until they become adults. I won’t go into that now. But it’s horrible and nearly everyone who comes out out of the academy ends up having some lifelong from of PTSD. Reddy sees a therapist several times a week, but he still has major emotional issues that set him back.

This final image shows specific ways his cognitive disabilities affect his life. Now here is where you can see what looks more like what goes into a character sheet in the flaws section. But now instead of simply being a list of flaws, it’s easier to see why he has those flaws and how deeply they affect him. Also, it makes it easier for me to see how his flaws will affect the plot. I don’t simply have the character behaves now and then, to show off his flaw. Everything he does in the story needs to be colored by these flaws somehow. They aren’t just add-ons to flesh him out. They are deeply imbedded in his personality.

I also don’t need to add in quirks. They write themselves in.
 My character gets unusually nervous and edgy when he doesn’t have someone he knows nearby. It’s a quirk, but not an add on. There are several good reasons he has the quirk. Because he gets lost easily, he might not find his way home without a friend. Something might happen and he needs to make a quick decision, but he’ll freeze up. He might have to put his thumb print on a legal document, and he has no idea what he’s “signing.” And he knows that he can’t always trust the people asking for his print to be honest about what’s written on the page. 
So it’s a quirk, yes. But it’s perfectly understandable why he has it with this map. For him, it’s not a quirk. It’s a survival technique.
I know I won’t convert every reader to mind maps, but maybe a few folk will see how they could benefit from switching over. Let me know your favorite ways to get a deep description of your character with maps, charts or other tools.

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