How I Write - Part 3: Figuring Out My Characters

Before we dive into Part 3, let's recap a bit first. In Part 1, I had my epiphany, which also equated to my initial incident. Then, in Part 2, I fleshed out various storylines and found the one that felt right for me to pursue. So now it's time to get to it and start writing, right?

Not so fast, cowboy (or cowgirl, as the case may be)! The real success of any story lies less in the story itself, than in the characters who bring that story to life. A story's characters must live, breathe and evoke real emotional responses from the reader, or nobody will care about the action taking place in the story. The reader must genuinely love, or at least identify with, the protagonist. They must despise (or at least really dislike) the antagonist. And they must have equally real feelings toward each and every one of the other characters, no matter how large or small a part they may play. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the supporting characters are as important as the leads, if not more so. These vital characters are often called upon to run interference for the leads, allowing them to do all the hero/villian type stuff that's written into their contracts. How the audience feels about these secondary characters will also reflect how they feel about the leads and the overall book.

So, to get started in the character development phase, my first step is to identify the leads. Who is the story about? Who is my protagonist? Is there just one, or is it more of an ensemble cast? For instance, my current novel, Your Truth is Out There, began as a "buddy" story with two main protagonists. As the story began to take shape, however, several other characters emerged with larger roles, turning my "buddy" book into a an ensemble team story.

Close on the heels of the protangonists is my antagonist. Who is he/she/it? Again, is there more than one, or are there several characters who would like to see my protagonist(s) fail (or worse). Who are the supporting characters on both sides? Wives, husbands, friends, co-workers, henchmen, gas station attendants, etc.

Once I've identified everyone (more or less), it's time to figure out who each of these characters really are—in as exact a manner as I can get. This is where I think my process may differ from a lot of other writers, in that I don't spend a lot of time making detailed profiles, resumes and/or other documents about each character. Instead, I keep it rather simple. I may jot a few notes down, regarding basic superficialities, like height, weight, sex, skin, hair and eye color, (and since my current novel includes non-terrestrials, what planet they're from, how many arms, eyes and legs, etc.), but generally, I like to keep it pretty simple. I find that my time is better spent ruminating on the character, rather than preparing a lot of physical notes about them. I want to get to know them in my head and in my heart, so that I have an emotional connection with them—one I hope will transfer on to the reader.

Now, let me be clear, I'm not saying that those who make detailed notes aren't making that same emotional connection—I believe they absolutely are—I'm simply saying there are different ways to approach characterization, and we each need to choose what works for us. Writing background information doesn't work for me—I have to write them into the situations they're going to face within the story and see how they react. It may not be the best method, it's just the best method for me.

Working with characters in this kind of "free-flowing" way has some disadvantages, for sure. Sometimes, I don't get it right the first time, especially when I first begin working with a new character, and that means rewriting. Sometimes, the character becomes inconsistent, which also means rewriting. Both of those instances usually happen because I've not taken enough time to simply sit, think and get to know the character well enough prior to writing about them. Sometimes it happens just because that's the way the process works—I have to get it wrong first, in order to get it right. In the end, I don't think it takes any more or less time and effort than if I took a different path, it's simply my way of getting there.

In spite of the occasional rewriting, however, there is one huge advantage I've found to writing characters in without too much background work. In at least two cases, I've stumbled upon relatively minor characters who really had little or no other purpose than to fill out a scene, who suddenly became major characters. In one case in particular (one of my antagonist's minions), he actually looked at me, winked, and told me, in no uncertain terms, that he was far from the minion I originally thought him to be. I don't think that would have happened if I'd structured my scenes and characters out in greater detail before writing them, which would have been sad, because, to me at least, that's when the writing gets really fun!

Be sure to come back next week for How I Write - Part 4: What Are You Waiting For? Start Writing - And DON'T Look Back.