D-4: bonus content: character sheets


So… I was talking about character sheets earlier. Character sheets are what I use to keep track of who does what in the trilogy–and who did what before the books actually started. I kept them regularly updated before each book, because they’re easy references, and save me the trouble of having to look up a particular details among the 25 chapters of a novel…

As usual: this isn’t an exhaustive system, or even the best system. It just happens to be the one that worked best for me.

I know lots of people go for physical description, but I’ve never found them particularly useful: I prefer to know what my character thinks, rather than what they look like, and as a result, though I did leave some spot for physical attributes on the character sheet, I never filled them out. (I think I’ve filled them once or twice, if a character has particularly notable physical traits such as scars).
I went for a format Tim Powers mentioned at Writers of the Future, which was to define a character by what they loved most, hated most, wants most and feared most. Those have to be four different things, not two pairs of polar opposites–otherwise you’re not getting much mileage from the system.
It’s actually quite interesting to see how different characters have totally different wishes (how they can, for instance, want the same things most, but not have any of the other three headings identical, and how this turns them into totally different people).

I used this as the basic format, then I threw in a bunch of other things: most useful for me were the attitudes of the various characters to the most important concepts in their societies, which helped to pinpoint the various mindsets (note that everyone is a believer, and no one is anti-religion, as this would have been historically inaccurate–not to mention awkward in a world where the gods are manifest. Though there are various degrees of appreciation, or lack thereof, for the priests in general). I added a biography, because I was tired of having a character rever to some events as having happened XXX years ago, and always getting the dates wrong…

Here’s the spoiler-free sheet for Acatl–mostly as it was at the beginning of Servant of the Underworld, though I added in a few things following Harbinger of the Storm.

(cut for length)

Name: Acatl
Date of birth/Age: 30 at the beginning of Servant of the Underworld
Profession: High Priest for the Dead, in charge of Temple for the Dead in the Sacred Precinct (for Imperial Family)
Status: bachelor
-no children
parents both deceased
elder brother: Neutemoc (32 years old)
younger sister: Mihmatini (18 years old)
bunch of other sisters who are married
other significant relatives
sister-in-law: Huei

Wants most: to be a warrior and the pride of his parents (impossible). Post-SoU: serve the gods to the best of his abilities, in order to leave something behind him.
Fears most: unfairness
Loves most: being able to understand how the universe works
Hates most: becoming insensitive

Physical traits:

Moral traits: inquisitive, mostly cool-headed, an excellent teacher although unaware of that fact. Prone to letting grudges or emotions mar his judgment, though. Can be very cynical and acid, especially about things that turn out badly.

Magical allegiances/attributes: connected to Mictlan, the underworld. He carries a handful of (greenish) obsidian knives taken straight from the underworld; any cut dealt by those will become infected and never close. Can summon the Wind of Knives.

Attitude to:
significant relations: worships his brother, while at the same time hating it–for being what he could never be, someone who was the pride of their parents and could support them both in their old age.
Has an older-brother attitude to his younger sister, and is getting faintly worried because no one has offered for her yet; he worries that she’ll be forced into the priesthood against her will. Has a tendency to decide things for her without asking for her opinion.
Is both awed and annoyed by Teomitl in equal measures: he sees great possibilities for his student, but worries that Teomitl will be uncontrollable–and that he’ll turn against him, just as Acatl turned against his own parents. Unspoken assumption that Teomitl is a surrogate son, though Acatl has no positive experience of parenthood.
life/death: both life and death are necessary in the cosmic order of the universe. Has long ago resigned himself to the fact that he’ll never make it to heaven, but consoles himself by thinking Mictlan isn’t so bad a place (he’s lying to himself, because deep down he’s frightened of its inevitability).
religion/priests: holds to his relationship with his god like a lifeline–he trusts Lord Death to do what is right (unlike the other gods, about whom he has no illusions); and deems it his duty to serve Him as best as he can. Finds comfort in rituals.
opposite gender: gets on very well with women as long as sex isn’t involved.
war: despises warriors and can’t stand their arrogance.
politics and empire: dislikes politics because they’re a grab for power and little better than what the gods are doing. Feels only contempt for those who grab power at the expense of protecting others, which he sees as a calling. Attached to his calpulli and extended family.
misc.: loves food (will lavishly describe meals, given a chance).

Character History:
1450: born on the outskirts of Tenochtitlan, the third son of two peasants. The child before him, Nezahual, does not survive his second year (a common occurrence at the time).
1450-1454: the Great Famine. Acatl has very few memories of that time (Neutemoc remembers it better); his parents basically sell everything of value they own (which is very little) in order to feed them; they also had the foresight to store some of their harvest in 1450, which gets them through the first two years.
1456 (?): goes first to the House of Youth, where his ability with numbers and deep devotion are noted; he’s moved to a calmecac in the Sacred Precinct of Tenochtitlan in 1457. But the selfishness of gods, only interested in having their devotion, repulses him, and he settles for one of the lowliest posts: priest for the Dead, intermediary between Mictlan and the world of the living. His parents are disappointed at him, and never lose an opportunity to remind him of how he’s failed. He sees death as being honest and giving every man his due, unlike the gods, and himself as providing a service that mankind badly needs, but deep down, doubts that he chose the right one (thinks he chose it only out of fear, because he wouldn’t have to face the living).
1467: fresh out of calmecac, he gets his first posting in Coyoacan as apprentice to an old, experienced priest, Tecehualli. Although Tecehualli sometimes is overbearing, they get on well, and he imparts his pragmatic approach to death to Acatl–for Tecehualli, life is nothing more than the door into death, and it’s only because of death that everything has a meaning–but more importantly, that the world can go on as it is. Some of his mentor’s fatalism becomes part of Acatl’s mindview.
1469: Acatl gets his first independent “posting”, still in Coyoacan. He’ll continue to visit Tecehualli until the old man dies.
1470: takes his first apprentice, a newly-trained priest called Payaxin.
1471: Payaxin attempts to call up a ghost and fails in his summoning, bringing the Wind of Knives instead, who kills him. Acatl, disconsolate at what he sees as unfairness, cuts himself off from the underworld’s magic. He meets Ceyaxochitl for the first time, and has a few acid run-ins with the Guardian’s way of seeing things.
1473: events of “Obsidian Shards”
1473: Acatl’s father drowns in one of the canals, following a fall from his boat. His mother, and his unmarried sisters move into Neutemoc’s household.
1473: fall of the neighbouring city of Tlatelolco at the hands of the Mexica Revered Speaker Axayacatl. Neutemoc plays a part in the pillage that follows; Acatl has little time to spare for anything related to war.
1474 (spring): events of “On Mictlan’s Threshold” (unpublished).
1476 (summer): events of “Safe, Child, Safe”
1476 (summer): events of “Beneath the Mask”
1476 (winter): Acatl’s mother dies, still unsatisfied with her son’s choices. Neutemoc tries to effect a reconciliation on her deathbed, but it backfires–angry words are thrown back and forth, until even the placid Acatl loses his temper, and all three of them are shouting at each other. Acatl realises there is no point in trying to argue with any of them–if he’s damned for what he’s chosen, then so be it (but he still can’t shake the idea that the path he’s chosen is the inferior one, and he sometimes gets very vocal on the subject of warriors, in an attempt to convince himself that he’s not utterly worthless).
1476 (winter): Ceyaxochitl is promoted to Guardian of the Sacred Precincts. She starts pushing Acatl’s name for promotion.
1479: Ceyaxochitl’s methodical campaign bears fruit, and Acatl is called to Tenochtitlan to officiate as High Priest for the Dead in the Sacred Precinct.
1480: start of Servant of the Underworld. Acatl is still not used to being in such a huge, luxurious temple.
1481: events of Harbinger of the Storm
1482: coronation war. Events of Master of the House of Darts.

And minor characters? Nope, I don’t do this kind of obsessive character sheet for everyone 🙂 For minor characters, I just went for the four things they wanted/feared most. Here are a few examples:

Loves most: power
Hates most: fools
Wants most: favourable changes
Fears most: staleness

Nezahual-tzin (Nezahualpilli)
Loves most: his city
Hates most: being dependent on others
Wants most: knowledge
Fears most: chaos

Again, those didn’t take me very long to do (I basically retrofitted them after having the characters in question be on stage for a couple of scenes), and definitely helped me make a difference between all the characters at court.

That’s all for today, and I’m taking a weekend break (got some radiators to take apart and clean if I want to be my apartment to be heated this winter). Coming Monday: the trailer for Master of the House of Darts, and a competition for cool prizes!


  1. Oh neat!

    I’ve known people to use game system character sheets (World of Darkness more than Dungeons and Dragons) to do up the details that you just listed. That’s a far more “crunchy” notion, though, I like your setup!

  2. He, glad you like it! I tried using game character sheets, but it all too often degenerated in counting up stats (I’m a fiddly gamer). And L5R isn’t such a good plan when it comes to character sheets…

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