3 ways to begin to develop the characters in your story

3 ways to begin to develop the characters in your story

I promised in my last post on beginning a novel that I would write about creating characters.

Of course, to begin with, I have characters swarming, ideas both historical and fictional. I’ve already searched photo databanks for images that might fit. (Currently, I like using Unsplash for contemporary photos, largely because they tend to be more natural and have personality.)

These incendiary sparks are key, but at a certain point, I have to become analytical.

The first step: The Writer’s Journey

I begin this process by reviewing Part One of The Writer’s Journey; Mythic Structure for Writers, by Christopher Vogler. (This is a book on writing I highly recommend.)

I list the archetypes that traditionally most good stories need:

  • Mentor
  • Hero/Heroine
  • Threshold Guardian(s)
  • Herald
  • Shapeshifter
  • Ally (or Allies)
  • Trickster
  • Shadow(s)

And then I begin mulling over the characters in My Next Novel (working title, “Raptor Girl”). The roles can be combined into one character (i.e. Shadow and Shapeshifter). I know who my Heroine is, as well as my evil Shadow, and I’m fairly certain that the Mentor is my Heroine’s father. But looking at this list, I realized, Damn, I don’t have a Trickster! And I need one. I need someone to bring humor to this story.

So right now, at this point, I’m still mulling. But that doesn’t stop me from moving onto the next step.

Step two: consulting The Positive Trait Thesaurus, The Negative Trait Thesaurus, and The Emotional Wound Thesaurus

 

I love these thesauruses. There are more, and I’ve used them all at various stages of writing a novel. At this mulling-about-characters stage, they are a great way to brainstorm. It’s also a good way to identify where the confusions lie.

I immediately identified my heroine Molly as alert (she’s a falconer, after all), and I have a fairly good feel for her brothers and her mother, but her father and the villain remain just a little mysterious to me yet. And who the heck is the Trickster?

Is it the “Wild Woman”?

I’ve long been drawn to having a character I think of as “Wild Woman,” inspired by this amazing portrait:

Lucrezia as Poetry" by Salvator Rosa.

This is “Lucrezia as Poetry” by Salvator Rosa. (An amazing portrait, don’t you think?) But where would she fit in? (Speak to me, Lucrezia!) Might she be a Trickster? Quite possibly. She might well also be a Shapeshifter or even a Mentor.

I’m still in the mulling stage, but it’s time to put together files for all of these characters, including their images, their roles in the story, their positive and negative traits, and (most important) emotional wounds.

And then, step three: the fun part

Once all this begins to congeal somewhat, I will assign sun signs (unless, of course, they are already historically known), and give some thought to where they all fall on an Enneagram chart: Perfectionist? Nurturer? Achiever? Romantic? Observer? Skeptic? Adventurer? Leader? Peacemaker?

I used Enneagram for my most recent novel (The Game of Hope) and Caroline Bonaparte, the Villain, was clearly a #8 (the Boss, Leader or Challenger, depending).

I’ve just bought Believable Characters; Creating with Enneagrams by Laurie Schnebly—so I can’t report on it yet—but there are a number of helpful articles on the Net:

Additionally, if you get hooked on all this—warning: it can become a tempting diversion—there is an online 10-week course available:

Final step: integration

The final challenge will be to pull all this information together and begin to form an integrated concept of each character, filling out the details of their lives, their health, their appearance, their eccentricities.

And then, of course, let them loose in your story!

 

 

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The joy of being at the beginning of writing a novel

The joy of being at the beginning of writing a novel

{Portrait of Robert Cheseman (1485-1547) by Hans Holbein the Younger. Might this be a model for my heroine’s father?}

I’m at the beginning of writing my next novel, and it’s a joy. I feel happy as a kid in a sandbox. It’s a slow process of discovery, and I expect it to take all year.

The things about my writing process that never change

This will be my seventh novel (ninth, counting the two thankfully unpublished ones), and there are a few things that always remain the same:

  • I always feel like a novice starting out.
  • I always change my method.
  • I always experiment with process.

Story Genius: a great book on writing

This time I’m following the advice given in Story Genius; How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere) by Lisa Cron.

By following, I mean that every time the author writes WHAT TO DO, I do it.

Here’s an early example from page 52:

WHAT TO DO Now, you try it. Write a What If that’s as fully fleshed out as you can make it, but still concise.

Here’s another example from page 118:

WHAT TO DO Now it’s your turn. Your goal is to zero in on three turning point scenes that will yield the most story-specific info, the most potent grist for the mill, so that you can, indeed, begin your novel in medias res.

The point of Story Genius is to identify the moments in your main character’s past life that result in an emotional wound so deep that it will propel her (and us) through the novel. It’s a slow process of discovery, but very worthwhile.

I’m at page 194 now, and at this point I’ve written three pivotal scenes from my main character’s early life, an opening scene and a critical scene at the end of the novel. (Cron makes it clear that all of this will inevitably change.)

Getting into the nitty-gritty

Now the task is to begin to “blueprint” the novel, first by setting up folders for each character, for scenes, for ideas, and for the world the story unfolds in. I plan to do all this in Scrivener, but I’m beginning by exploring my characters in more depth.

This, alone, will take time, but it’s truly a pleasure. In my next blog post, I intend to share the tools I have used in the past to develop character, along with some excellent new tools I have discovered.

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How to begin to write a book

How to begin to write a book

Every stage of writing a book is a challenge—the beginning, the middle, and the end—but I think figuring out how to begin to write a book might be the most difficult.

I’m at the beginning stage of writing my next novel now. I’m going to use Scrivener for this one, and so I have a lot to learn. It’s coming.

I’ve started etching out a plot using plot “beats” I’ve gleaned from Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Yet I’ve been floundering. I’m accustomed to writing biographical fiction, with reams of biographies to work from. That has its own challenges, certainly, but for me, the free fall of a novel based on someone about whom there are only a few paragraphs written—and whose existence is debated, at that—is even more challenging.

I’ve discovered a book that is excellent for the pre-plot stage: Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere).

I’ve resisted this book because it felt too gimmicky, but it was recommended by writers I respect and admire, and so I’m giving it a try. I’m impressed! It’s helping me to closely define my protagonist before I construct the plot. It doesn’t make it easy (nothing can), but it’s highly worthwhile. If you are at the pre-plot stage—or if you are having difficulty knowing how to begin writing—I recommend you read this book. Better yet, do the exercises.

How do you begin writing a book? What works for you?

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Like wild! In the pink! On final stage revision …

Like wild! In the pink! On final stage revision …

I started writing this post six months ago, back when The Game of Hope was titled Moonsick. As part of the final revision, then, I was looking for “legal” and “illegal” words—that is, words that didn’t exist in 1800.

Here are the words and phrases I was surprised to discover were sufficiently ancient:

eavesdropping

suicide

like wild

in the pink

I continued to do this for every draft that followed, keeping a master list of okay, and not okay words.

I sent in the “final final” draft yesterday around 2:00, and last night, at dinner, I made a note to check yet another word. (Can I find that post-it now? No!)

The next step

The next time I see This Book of a Thousand Drafts (in only two weeks) it will have been transformed into “pages”—that is, looking more and more a book. At this point, there will be a limit to the type of changes I will be able to make. The odd word here and there, perhaps. A paragraph cut or added? Certainly not. Anything that would throw the layout off would topple the entire structure like a house of cards.

I recall that it used to be that an author could make minor changes at this stage—to what we then called galleys—but beyond that, he or she paid, because it was costly for the publisher to make changes.

I’m incapable of not making changes, however, and I remember going over each line carefully, dotting each page with corrections. And then the corrections to the corrections would have to be checked, etc., etc., etc. Indeed, the moment I hold the published book in my hand, I will set an extra copy on the shelf marked “changes.” This copy will also get marked up.

I was, I hope, more cautious with this final draft of The Game of Hope, and will examine the coming pages carefully—because next will be ARCs (Advance Reading Copies), and it’s painful to see glaring errors at that stage. (I trashed an entire box of Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe ARCs because of all the errors.) It’s acceptable to have a few mistakes in an ARC, but I dislike it.

And beyond …

Someone once defined publishing as bringing a forcible halt to the writing process. The publishing process can be ongoing—there will be (one hopes) a paperback edition, foreign editions—it’s never-ending. Paul Kropp once told me that he never really understood one of his novels until he rewrote it for the UK edition. The Life of Pi was first published in Canada, but I read that it underwent massive editorial surgery for its UK edition—the version the world loved.

The transition to digital has made the process somewhat smoother, but there have been glitches. I used to make editorial notes to myself in my Word document, formatting them as invisible. In the early days of the transition to digital, some of these “invisible” asides showed up in the Pages for Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe. And so, in a poignant scene, up pops my editorial: Wouldn’t her doctor have considered a venereal disease? I still remember the shock I felt seeing those words in the text of my novel. The production department lost sleep over that glitch, too, making sure that there were no others.

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Trying to write in 2017 …

Trying to write in 2017 …

{Photo by Ian Chen on Unsplash.}

I sent draft 9.8 of The Game of Hope to my editor – a partial deadline met, which is always a wonderful feeling. Right now I’m organizing my beta-reader and consultant feedback notes and making further changes.

The final-final draft is due in only two-and-a-half weeks, which isn’t much time at all given that most of that time will be given over to 1) packing up our house in Mexico, 2) flying back to Canada, 3) visiting our daughter and her wonderful family, and 4) settling back into our house in Canada.

In other words: I must keep at it.

It has been a challenging year. We sold a house and moved into a new one while it was still under construction. Needless-to-say, that was not conducive for writing. (At one point I was at my desk with headphones on, trying to ignore the six workmen in my study!)

Writing when the world seems to be self-destructing

Additionally, in truth, I have been seriously side-lined by US news: anxiety, horror, alarm, fascination … all of that.  I know I’m not the only one! This gif expresses the problem perfectly: