Category Archives: The Writing Process

Getting it Right: Character Counts

Six months ago I started a novel, and in that time I’ve written enough words for most books–somewhere in the realm of 185k though 23k now lives in a deleted scenes file–but I’m only just beginning to know my characters. I mean really know them. This might be due in part to my penchant to discovery-write the majority of my story rather than meticulously plan every scene out in advance. I’m a Gardener, not an Architect, and that means I’ll be prone to much more rewriting.

Oh, I know the ending and several key events, who dies, who lives, and a few other elements of the story, but for me, I enjoy the process of discovering the nuances of my characters as I write. As a result, I’ve recently decided to start over. That is to say, I’ve decided to begin my second draft before finishing the first.

It’s not unheard of; David Farland–bestselling author of the Runelords series–has said he writes through the first half of a book then does a rewrite before tackling the second half. Granted, he’s a self-proclaimed Architect, but the practice seems sound in my opinion, especially since I’m doing it for the sake of character. I finally know much more about the motivations of my characters, their voices, how they would actually handle certain situations–which, in some cases, is different from what I wrote originally.

Many authors talk about how it takes them a few thousand words to truly get into the head of their characters–longer for those like myself writing Epic Fantasy since we’re often dealing with multiple POV characters and, depending on needs of the story,significantly larger casts. But it’s extremely important to know your characters. A good plot is important, key scenes that might be depicted in cover art are important, but, when you think about it, what you remember most about every book you’ve ever read or every movie you’ve ever seen are the characters. You remember the Vaders, the Gollums, the Tyrions, the Moiraines.

Every character should be the hero in their own story. Their motivations should make sense even if we as impartial–or even biased–readers disagree with them on a moral level. This is especially true of antagonists who can become flat and one dimensional if they are not at least some variant of gray. My primary antagonist just happens to be one of my favorite POV characters. He also happens to have the most complex motives, and is the main impetus for my decision to rewrite what I’ve already written before pushing on to the end. In many ways, he’s more a protagonist than antagonist in the true sense of the word, though he does work against the main protagonists’ goals.

So how does one accomplish the task of creating memorable characters? It starts with knowing them yourself, as their creator, the writer who gives flesh and blood to the ink of their existence. Learn their habits, their quirks, their wants and desires. This, I’ve come to discover, can only be achieved by writing in their heads for long enough to begin thinking as they think, acting as they act, loving or hating as they do. You must know them as well as you know yourself for ultimately, they are a part of you.

Another way to breathe life into a character is through physical description. I love to people watch, everywhere I go, looking for the tiny idiosyncrasies that make us all unique and which I might be able to apply to my own characters. It might be something simple: a limp, an incessant cough, the way a woman tilts her head when confused or a man clenches his fists when challenged. It could be something more subtle like speech patterns, grammar–or lack thereof–the amount of eye contact one person chooses to give versus another. We are all of us different, and so too should your characters be different from one another.

Perhaps the most important thing is to like your characters, even the antagonists. Robert Jordan used to say his favorite character was whichever one he was writing at any particular moment, something I took to heart. After all, if you don’t care about your characters–even the baddies–no one else will either. Give them something to strive for, something to long for, something that, if they don’t get it, will bring their world crashing down around them.

These are the things I’ve only now, after 180k+ words, discovered about some of my characters, and why I’ve decided to begin draft two of my novel. I was always going to do another draft anyway–perhaps many more since I’m more Gardener than Architect–so I do not feel like I’m going backwards by starting it now. I’ll be building stronger, more memorable characters, and that will go a long way toward getting this novel published. And who knows, maybe somewhere down the line, some other aspiring writer like me will mention Bos Illur in the same sentence as Vader, Gollum, Tyrion and Moiraine. One can only hope!

 

Revisions ““ Discovering Those Great Plot Gaps

There’s no greater feeling than getting that first draft done! Celebrate, pat yourself on the back and then take a break. Yup, you heard me. Set it aside and walk away for a few weeks or a few months. Tackle another story, another novel, another writing project. This will accomplish two things – it’ll be easier to switch from being creative to editing and practice makes perfect so your improved skill level will help you revise.

My first revision always looks at plot gaps. There are several methods and each can be employed for their own reasons but the quickest and best one I’ve found is to write the dreaded synopsis. I use it for the same reasons editors do: to see if the plot makes sense, if it creates tension and if there is a story arc as well as main character arcs. Some would argue that the original outline can be used this way. I choose to write the synopsis because it’s a fresh approach to looking at the novel and I’ve got to write it at some point.

For the purpose of revision, my synopsis is about 2,500 words for every 80,000 words in draft. The reason for keeping it so short is because I want to focus only on key elements in the plot and character lines. Subplots and side stories/events are examined later with respect to how they support the key plot points. The synopsis is written in third person, present tense and in the style or voice the novel is written in (humorous, chatty, dramatic).

Before you write the synopsis, make a note of the basic story arc which starts with the inciting incident. The inciting incident is what motivates the character toward a goal such as conflict resolution, finding true love, solving a mystery, saving someone, to resist change, etc. Then there are the obstacles to reaching the goal, the climax wherein the goal may or may not be achieved and then the denouement.

Like every good book and book jacket blurb, a synopsis starts out with a good hook. This introduces the protagonist, her motivations, goals and the conflict which keeps her from her goal. A synopsis isn’t a simple listing of events but rather it show how the events affect people and what they do which in turn affects plot and outcomes. Now, weave in the story arc, the key points of your plot, with your character’s actions, reactions while showing how they are affected by the decisions they make or actions they take. Use this method through the crisis and denouement.

When I read over the synopsis, I ask the following questions with every plot event:

  • Given the protagonist’s motivations, are her reactions and actions believable? If she really wants to save her family from the villains, why is she enjoying a glass of wine on the beach?
  • Is there enough tension between the protagonist and the antagonist? Does it increase until the climax?
  • Does this feel like it’s naptime? Has something been resolved too quickly? Are more obstacles needed? Remember, if you’re bored so will the reader be.
  • Does it move the story forward in a way which is exciting and logical? Or does it feel contrived, flat and unimportant?
  • Was this the most reasonable reaction and action for the character? Why didn’t she react another way? These questions focus on the logic problems of a character’s actions. For example, why didn’t Jean simply kill Maggie by pushing her over the ship’s railing when no one was looking? Why did she choose to slowly poison her to death? As the writer, you may know why, but did you communicate it clearly?

A synopsis is a great tool, even in the middle of a novel to check how your plot and character arcs are evolving. Recently, I was completing the first draft of a novel and I just couldn’t finish writing the last three chapters. Something wasn’t quite right and I didn’t know what. After writing the synopsis I discovered a couple of logic holes in a character’s reaction which didn’t fit his goals plus there was a plot logic issue. With these now understood, the draft was completed to my satisfaction. And, I’ve got a great tool to refer to during the revision to make sure the scenes, plot and character arcs in the manuscript follow the synopsis. Better still, I have a draft synopsis which I can revise for my queries.