How to Write A Novel, Step 5: Coming to Know Your Characters
I’m assuming that by the time you have sorted out all that planning (see Step 4...), you will already be quite conversant with your characters. If you are like me, they will be pretty much like real people, probably already interfering with the planning process as they put their two bob’s worth in. Or twenty cents’ worth, if you are post decimalisation, or, allowing for inflation, possibly twenty dollar’s worth (if you are reading in a country other than Australia, feel free to insert the relevant currency).
This is okay (the interfering characters, that is) because Character is Story.
Character is also Action.
Often, my main characters turn up before the story idea, demanding their moment in the limelight, and it is the characters’ stories that I write (this has been particularly so with my Trouble series, now due to be released in February next year , where I have written in first person, using the voice of my main character as narrator).
I walk a lot when I want to think, and frequently find myself seguing from chats with these characters through to scenes that could be used in the story. I believe I have commented in the past about how useful it is to have a dog to walk with, because passers by tend to assume that you are talking to the dog, rather than stark raving mad. Possibly the dog thinks so, too, so it is a win-win all around.
I will get back to my lonely comment about Character being Action, promise, but first of all I will talk about coming to know your characters – and I’m talking here about pinning down some basic facts before you ever write a word about them in the story (hard, I know, ‘cause I always just want to get writing).
First of all, you need to come up with a pitch for your character – I call it a Character Call – where you summarise your character in one snappy sentence. It’s important at this stage to have a vague idea of your story plot, too, because in the tangled web of developing your story, your character is very important.
This is my Character Call for the main character in the Trouble series:
Georgia Penn is a precocious girl who solves the mystery of her family’s missing home and rescues her baby brother from a giant green dragon.
Name. Adjective to describe. What she does (in the story). Full Stop.
(Bonus, this could also be slightly reworded to become the elevator pitch for the first story in the series... Trouble At Home is the story of Georgia Penn who is, etc., etc.).
Don’t skimp on this sentence. Take time to think it through. It should be very condensed by the time you have constructed it. It should be a potent elixir that you have distilled from all the thoughts you already have, and other poetic exhortations.
It looks simple, because the end product – the Character Call – should be simple, but that sentence really needs to hold the essence of your character and her story.
Because Character is Action...
...but we are not there yet.
First we still need to get to know our characters a bit better...
… so interview them:
What’s your name? (important... naming your characters is also a skill to be learned)
How old are you?
Where do you live? What is it like there? (If you are writing an historical novel you might also ask What year is it?)
What is your favourite memory? Embarrassing memory?
What is something that you have done that makes you proud?
What is the worst/naughtiest thing you have ever done?
Note: not all these things will appear in your story, but they will help you determine a lot about the character’s personality... which is important because it will give you a feel for how they will react to certain situations that are going to arise. This is where you are getting to the heart of who they really are.
Thoughts about this are the kind of thing that start to come up when I am walking... but at some stage I find that it is good to formalise these ideas and put them down on paper or record them in a document in your computer story file – somewhere that you can find it all again in a moment of need.
There will be a moment of need.
There will also be a moment of need when you are on page 127 of your manuscript and you realise that you described them way back when somewhere but you really can’t remember what colour you said their eyes were. This is a problem, because there will be readers who do remember.
So... create a file where you do describe your character in detail.
What colour is the hair? How is it worn?
Choice of clothing? (Casual? Stylish? Formal? Crisp? Neat? Bohemian?)
Include mannerisms and favourite words and phrases.
In fact, include anything YOU need to know... and, don’t forget to add things to this file as you write the story... because Character is Action.
However, once again, and this is REALLY important, do not expect or even try to include all this information in the story.
Because, and at his point I will quote Stephen King, who reminds us in his book, On Writing:
Description begins in the writer’s imagination,
but should finish in the reader’s.
Or, tell the reader the minimum and trust that they can fill in the details.
And that is quite enough for now... next time I will talk about what is meant by Character is Action.
Oh, one last note: don’t forget to do this for all your major players... your antagonist needs to be as fully rounded as your protagonist, and all those side-kicks need some back story, too. Probably okay to wing your walk-on parts, so long as you have a clear picture in your head... although I have heard stories about those walk-on parts having ideas of their own...