Elizabeth: Back to Basics – The Characters

Stories Yet To Be WrittenAs I mentioned in last week’s Back-to-Basics post, I’ve been hanging out with some potential new stories while working on revisions to The Traitor. The stories are shiny and new and, just as Justine mentioned in her post yesterday, working on them provides a nice change of pace as well as a creativity boost.

One of these stories, a contemporary romance tentatively titled Second Chances, is really shaping up. The random ideas I’ve captured so far have translated into a fairly complete story outline. The first two acts are pretty solid, I got a strong idea for the third act yesterday, and I know how it all ends.

Before I get to the stage of putting words down on the (draft) page though, there are a few more things I need to figure out. Unlike The Traitor, where I just started writing and hoped I would figure everything out by the end of the story, I want to have a stronger foundation in place this time around.

This week my focus is on: Character

We’ve talked a lot on this blog about how important it is that characters have strong goals and motivations (we’ll talk more about that next week). Before you get to that point, however, you need a clear idea of who your characters really are. The posts here, here, and here provide some practical exercises for learning about your characters.   You can also Google “character worksheet” and find links for lists of character attributes that you may want to think about when defining your characters. From basic information like name, age, and physical characteristics, to the more in-depth strengths, weaknesses, and experiences, the worksheets can help you develop interesting, believable characters. An example of a very robust character worksheet can be found here.

“Character is the sum total of a person’s choices.” ~ P. B. Fitzwater

It can also be helpful to think about how your character might react in certain basic situations. For example, how do they wake up in the morning? Do they bounce out of bed, throw on some clothes and head out the door eager to face the day or do they push the snooze button multiple times, drag themselves to the coffee pot, and then race around to avoid being late? If your main characters turn out to have very different styles, it can set up some interesting conflicts down the line in the story.

So, what do I know about the characters in Second Chances so far?

The protagonist is Maddie. She’s in her late twenties, divorced, and works in the business field (consultant, maybe). She worked at the SBA (small business administration) at one point, helping owners get their businesses up and running. That is where she first met the antagonist, Sam, when he was starting up his construction business. The careers of both characters were primarily driven by plot points in the story rather than my thinking “hey, what would happen if I got a consultant and a construction guy together?

There are a number of secondary characters including Bella (the best friend), Jack (Maddie’s annoying brother), and Mags (Maddie’s grandmother, who is sharp as a tick and drives the plot more than anyone realizes). I’ve also uncovered some random things about the characters, like the fact that Maddie and Sam both like Butter Pecan ice cream, and Etta James’ At Last was the first-dance song played when Maddie was married.

I still have more details to pin down (hair color would be good to know), but I’m making good progress. I’m hoping this up-front work will help me get a cleaner draft on the page, or at least a draft with vibrant characters.

So, how do you get to know your characters? Do you “learn as you go” or do you define them up front?

12 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Back to Basics – The Characters

  1. I know my characters pretty well when I start out, but I don’t usually fill out a character sheet. I envision a character’s core values and motivations (since hair color, job, dress and an other things are variable, even within a story) and then I start writing. I learn more as I go.

    Like you and several of the other Ladies, I started another project (a short story) when I got bogged down with book 2 of my proposed trilogy. I thought the short story would be a good change of pace. Now I’m bogged down on the short story. This reminds me of writing problems I had when I was 10. Makes me super cranky. Is this why I went to McD? No. Plus, I have one more submission to make on book 1. When that’s sent in, I hope by the end of the week, I’m finishing that short story, even if it means writing just two more words (“The End”) and then moving on to figure out book 2. At least for book 2, I know who most of the major characters are. So many projects, so little time!

    • Kay – good luck on moving past the “bogged down” phase. Isn’t it annoying when stories refuse to cooperate. Sending you positive writing vibes for inspiration on the short story and a way forward on book 2.

  2. My characters are half-formed when I start a story. Their personalities develop as I write and then I go back and add the details. Sarah’s character was well-developed at the start of my WIP because this is the fourth story she’s been in. Finch was a new character and he started out laid back, but, for example, didn’t have a scar. He has developed a lot through the writing. I don’t have any new story ideas right now. So Antigone Rising is getting all my attention.

    • Michille – It make sense that your characters personalities develop as you write, since you’re seeing them in new situations and you have more information to draw on. I have the basic outlines for mine now and I expect to fill in the more nuanced / detailed aspects of their personalities as the story unfolds.

  3. Being only a consumer of fiction (albeit an eternally grateful one), I have no experience with creating a universe out of whole cloth and determination, and so can only repeat what my betters have said before me. My favorite authors (or the subset of beloved authors who have written about their writing process) talk about being surprised by their characters’ histories.

    Those are the authors who seem to consistently create worlds into which I can wholly fall, and to which I return time and again.

  4. I really like the discovery aspect of starting with a character, finding her doing something, and then having to figure out why she did that, why she reacted the way she did.

    This time, my research process has been quite long, and I feel like my characters are accreting particle by particle. This causes a few problems — my characters are very strongly flavored by whatever I am reading at the moment and sounds like a good idea for them. And the big problem is that I have built up one idea of them, but now that I’m actually writing them, the plot needs them to be someone different. It’s driving me right up the wall.

    Let me modify that other statement — not so much different, but the small details that I attached to the characters no longer work. Before, Bunny had a small inheritance ($100 in 1899 dollars), and the stakes were, she had to find a way to earn a living (paid photographer is her goal at the beginning) before the money runs out. Now, the plot demands that she be on her last five dollars. She’s got a week to get a job before she goes back to her old newspaper in shame. I can see how the stakes are raised, and how it makes things more exciting . . . but part of me finds it extremely annoying. She’s got different reactions and she’s really a different character with that small change. (Then add in all the other changes that go along . . . .)

    Like Kay, I’m grumpy.

  5. Pingback: Elizabeth: Friday Writing Sprints, now With Character Improv! | Eight Ladies Writing

  6. Pingback: Elizabeth: Back to Basics – The Conflict | Eight Ladies Writing

  7. Pingback: Elizabeth: Back to Basics – The Setting | Eight Ladies Writing

  8. Pingback: Elizabeth: Back to Basics – The Outline | Eight Ladies Writing

  9. Pingback: Elizabeth: Back to Basics – Actually Writing | Eight Ladies Writing

  10. Pingback: Elizabeth: Back to Basics – Doing the Research | Eight Ladies Writing

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