Tips On Writing: Prepping for the Novel, Part Three–Character

 

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Your novel is on one of these shelves!

First off, I know, I know.  I like me some convoluted headlines, don't I?  You'd think a writer would be good at firing off snappy subject lines, but alas, such is not the case with this writer. I think it's the novelist in me who loves to write long headlines.  Apologies.

 

You've landed on the third part of my series on what you need to do before you write a novel.  You can read the introduction, with a bit about tools, on this post, and part two, about the idea and the process, on Wednesday's post.

Today's post is about character.  It is one of my favorite topics when it comes to novel writing, because I'm one of those writers who believe that all story comes from character.  Years ago my dearly departed mother told me to always make sure there were people in my snapshots, because photographs without people in them are boring.  And you know what?  Unless you're looking at a shot by Ansel Adams or someone of his ilk, she's right.

Novels are about characters in action.  They are about characters in opposition.  Novels are about characters in conflict.  And so on.  Given that novels are about character, it stands to reason that when setting out to write a novel, you should know a lot about your character.  So, here goes.

Wants/Needs/Fears

A good place to start is by figuring out what your character wants.  The novelist Kurt Vonnegut once said, "always have your character want something, even if its just a glass of water."  Desire drives the world.  It will drive your character, too.  (My husband tells the story of the time we were in Paris and I found a jacket I wanted to buy.  Suddenly, my French got really good as I found words to ask for the location of the check-out stand.  My desire for the jacket overcame my fear of speaking the language.)

If you can't figure out what your character wants, maybe it is a need or fear that drives her.  If you can't figure those out, proceed with the rest of the character exercises and then start writing.  It will come to you.

Get a Visual

It can be incredibly helpful to have an image of your character in mind.  Often people begin with a photo of an actress or public figure.  This can be a great starting point, as it can help to write a description to have something to work off.  Do a search on Google Image for multiple views to put on your vision board.  Or use models from catalogs, which also afford you many photos.  Or sketch your character. 

Do a Dossier

You really need to know the nuts and bolts of your character and a bit about her background.  Consider writing the following:

Name, nickname

Age, birthdate and place

Height, weight, build, description of appearance

Marriage and family history (siblings? parents alive?)

Physical scars

Emotional scars

Educational background

Traits

Likes/dislikes

Religion

There's more you can do here, too–this is just a starting point.  As you write this, allow questions about your character to form and jot them down.  Then answer them.

Ordinary Day

What is your character's ordinary day like?  Write it out, from the time she gets up in the morning until the time she goes to sleep at night.  Where does she go?  What does she do?  Who does she see?  I learned this from a screenwriter (whose name I've forgotten) years ago.  It is amazing how useful this little writing exercise is; try it.  You'll learn a lot about your character.

These exercises ought to give you enough material to get going.  In truth, often a character pops into my head and I write a scene or two with her to see if she's got legs.  (Metaphorically, people, metaphorically.)  Once I ascertain that she does, then I return to these writing exercises to learn more about her.

Create a successful, inspired writing life: Find images to represent your character and add them to your vision board.  Then fill out a character dossier and write her ordinary day. 

Please comment.  I'd love to hear how you get to know the characters in your novels and stories.  Do you write up character dossiers?  Take them out on a date?  Interview them?  Do tell.

 PS.  Typepad's spellcheck has been wonky lately.  Forgive errors.  I've gone back over it a couple times, but something may have eluded my eagle eyes.

Photo by Alvimann. 

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8 Comments on "Tips On Writing: Prepping for the Novel, Part Three–Character"

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Charlotte Dixon
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02/24/2012 16:45

You’re right, Tori. Thanks for dropping by.

Tori
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Tori
02/24/2012 16:06

Characters really are quite important. It’s annoying how many writers cut those little corners.
theweirdworder-awritersworld.blogspot.com/

Jessica Baverstock
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02/27/2012 02:55
I was reading ‘Zen in the Art of Writing ‘ by Ray Bradbury today and when I read this comment I thought of your post. ‘Somewhere along about the middle of the page, or perhaps on the second page, the prose poem would turn into a story. Which is to say that a character suddenly appeared and said, “That’s *me*”; or, “That’s an idea *I like*!” And the character would then finish the tale for me.’ While story is very important (as mentioned in your next post), in my experience story can’t go anywhere until it has a character to… Read more »
Charlotte Dixon
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02/27/2012 06:58

Jessica, I forgot all about that Ray Bradbury book, thanks for the reminder. As I recall, it is a good one. And if this anecdote is any indication, well worth reading. Indeed, I totally agree, “story can’t go anywhere until it has a character to explore it.”

Jessica Baverstock
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02/27/2012 16:10

I’m only about a quarter of the way into it at the moment, but it’s very interesting. I’ve just finished the chapter where he talks about how he grew from being a young writer who immitated other writers into his true writing self.

The thing I found most interesting is that it took him a long time. Years. He’d write a story that left him in tears with the hairs on the back of his neck standing up, and then he’d go back to ‘writing poorly most of the time.’ I found that oddly comforting.

Charlotte Dixon
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02/27/2012 16:22

I love stories where it takes a famous author years to make it. Hope for us all.

Sharon
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04/13/2013 14:34

I love the idea of writing out an ordinary day in the life of your character. I think I might try that with my major characters, maybe in the form of a diary entries.

I think music is key when trying to feel your character. Making a playlist for them can be fun. Either stuff you think they would listen to, or music that reminds you of them.

Charlotte Dixon
Guest
04/13/2013 16:46

Try it!  Writing out an ordinary day is deceptively revealing.  You think it's just going to be blah blah blah and then it starts opening up all kinds of insight into your characters.  And I love the idea of doing a play list for them.

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