“I want to write a book.” How many times have you heard someone make that statement? Maybe it’s one of your deepest desires in life. For me, I had a mid-thirties moment. It wasn’t anything major like a mid-life crisis where one loses their senses. This was more of a clarifying moment in my life where I believe God planted a few seeds.
I’m no gardener, but if someone gave me a packet of seeds without a label, out of curiosity I might plant them to see what I would get. That’s kind of what I did a few years ago. I took some recurring thoughts (seeds) and scribbled them down in my journal. Over a period of time, I expanded these ideas into scenes and chapters. I started several books and currently have two manuscripts under my belt. For this article, I’m focusing on the first manuscript mainly because it took me two and half years to write.
I learned a lot about the art of writing from this first manuscript. I will never forget the day I finally typed, The End. In some weird way I felt official. No more I want to write a book. I did it.
Okay, I have a long way to go with being published, but transferring a story to blank pages is not an easy venture. These are the same pages where a writer needs to come up with a beginning, middle and end. To even call your book a novel, a certain word count is needed. 50,000 words are the minimum for a novel. Oh and of course, you want to write a novel that one day critics will use that famous line, “This book was a page-turner.” This process can be frustrating. Those ideas start to resemble a puzzle and you have to somehow put them together logically.
I started my first manuscript with a prologue. Over the years, I’ve heard many writers go back and forth over the need for a prologue. I’m not going to get into that argument here, but I can tell you my instincts told me this story required one. My prologue starts with a young girl in the back of a police car. But then what? I wrote countless chapters in an attempt to tell the story of this little girl. Who was she? Why should the reader care about her being in the back of the police car? What does this event have to do with the adult woman who is the main character? Can I just cut this whole scene and start with Chapter 1?
Who said no? The little girl from the prologue. Through all my writing (and chopping), she wouldn’t leave me alone until I told her story. It took me years, but I finally did. During the process, my main character took me on a journey through her past. She also took me on a journey to face my present. What if these events happened to me, how would I react? To bring this fictional character to life, I needed to take the seed given to me and tend to it so it could grow. In essence, I needed to know her to be able to share her story.
Now there are a lot of tips and tricks to getting to know your character. These are three basic steps, with each one taking as long as the writer needs.
STEP 1. Character Sketch
During this stage, make notes on the character looks (eye color, hair color, height, weight), personality (joyful, moody), profession, relationships (wife, husband, sister), age, physical location, status and any other details that will help form the character. Some writers have elaborate charts to help them dissect their characters on paper. Others may clip or download photos and put together a visual scrapbook page.
My initial meeting with my protagonist (the main character) started with pen and paper. This particular manuscript was written in the third person, but while I worked on character development, I wrote her dialogue and thoughts in the first person. The conversational journal entry gave me the deepest glimpse into my character’s life.
Try several methods until you find one that helps you tap into your character(s).
STEP 2. Character Connections
You might start to sketch out other characters at this point. Who’s your antagonist (the person who has it out for your main character)? Who are the other major characters? Minor characters?
I did not do elaborate character sketches on the minor characters, but I often wrote scenes where the protagonist interacted with a minor character. I started to see where one minor character provided comic relief and another one provided wisdom at just the right time. These supporting characters help create more depth for the main character and vice versa.
STEP 3. Character Goals, Motivation and Conflict
As much of a bookworm as I am, it took me awhile to catch onto this third essential to writing a “pageturner.” I couldn’t figure out why certain scenes seemed to fall flat. Thanks to a critique partner, my eyes were opened to what was missing.
GOALS: What was the goal or purpose for a particular scene in the story? Did it really keep the story moving?
MOTIVATION: Why does the character choose to respond to a situation in such a way? Was there something from the past or present driving the character’s motive?
CONFLICT: What happens if conflict is thrown in the mix? When the character is kept from achieving their goal, how does this change the story?
These are the kinds of questions that really help a writer with the plotting process. The character starts to take on a life beyond the initial sketch in Step 1 above. Before you know it, the seed planted a few months ago has not grown into a viable story.
For Further Reading
The writing process is on-going. Here are a few books on my shelf about character development.
- Characters, Emotions, & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress
- Creating Unforgettable Characters by Linda Seger
- Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors by Brandilyn Collins