Characters are used to slog through all sorts of goo to deliver an author’s message. Over the years, I have employed rocks, trees, animals, and humans in all their sorts. Whatever works to convey that story’s core. They can be fairly straight forward or complicated. The longer the work, the more detail. That means employing tools to keep track of those details. I have seen it happen in serial reads, a character in Book 1 has blue eyes, but in Book 3 they’ve turned green. Adults in their prime change height or characters switch names. There are many ways to keep details straight while keeping the process simple. An author wants time to actually write.
My first character sketches were hand-written notes. (Thanks to Swedish naturalist and physician Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy who invented Index Cards). Always looking at how to improve the wheel, I check out how others do it. Most were multi-page akin to a CIA dossier. One with potential underwent liposuction. As Sgt. Friday in Dragnet said, “Just the facts ma’am.” Adopting and modifying, the attached forms slowly evolved to provide the skeleton on which to create a story and its characters and keep the facts straight.
Before beginning that story it is necessary to take time for thought and perhaps some research. During the 2019 National November Writing Month (NaNo) challenge I wrote a 147,000-word draft novel in nineteen days. How? Beginning research in May and organizing the chapters using the two tools presented here and spending six hours each day (broken up with breaks.) Let me explain the procedure that has evolved over the years.
Taking some time off between editing stints on the 2018 NoNo draft, I cruised a social media site. Someone posted a photo of two teenage boys lounging on a blanket spread out on the grass, probably near water as they were wearing swimming suits. They are eating cherries. An inspiration moment said that there could be a story there. The photo was copied to a “Photo Prompts” file. While working on the 2019 NaNo project, I read a heart-breaking news article. “Local Teen Commits Suicide.” The now forever fourteen young man had just begun to blossom. Why? He was gay, bullied by peers, and thrown out his home. That photo saved months before flashed to mind. Bingo! There was the story and message. The photo and news article were married with a synopsis of what I had in mind. This was then moved to the “Ideas” file.
The NaNo draft of “Love and Treachery” finished and put aside to mellow, I moved to begin another project. (I am a writing-holic). Wandering through the “Ideas” file, the suicide note came up. Moving to the patio lounger, eyes closed, the process of fleshing out a fuller synopsis began answering the following questions:
What? When” Where? How? Why?
Yes, I omitted a very important element “Who”. Once having a handle on the above, the process of picking characters can begin by asking what kind can best handle the chore – inanimate, animate, young, old, male, female, androgynous, strong, weak, ambivalent, searching. Staying with a 14-year-old male, is he a momma’s boy, daddy’s boy, an angel, a devil or somewhere in between?
“Write about what you know.” That admonition can save time but don’t let that stop you from going into unknown terrain. The Internet has provided an incredible amount of information. In this case, I have worked with, counseled, taught, and associated with teenage boys for over fifty years as a police officer, Scout leader, and friend. That has provided a pretty good handle on their behavior resulting in writing about them and their struggles while growing up. Never a dull moment as they constantly change while evolving.
As the story begins evolving, I use this outline form, the same used for each chapter of “Love and Treachery.” It is a road map for the imagination to begin traveling.
What? – Technical details
When? – Current
Where? – An imaginary, small community on a lake.
Who? – The actors.
How? – The plot.
Why? – The main character is bullied? He’s homosexual. That might be enough, but there is usually more to the reason to commit suicide than just that. Bullying starts before puberty. In this case, a father (player #f) who can’t find anything his son does good enough and continually belittles him. A mother (player #e) is a controlling, helicopter. So much for self-esteem. He needs a friend (player #d) who stands by him, and a deputy sheriff (player #a) who try to mediate the attacks on the MC and help him through the most difficult time boys encounter – surviving a rapidly changing body. Before the manner of death is known some people like player “f” jump to their own conclusions an accuse an innocent man (player #b).
Second Why – questions: – Why are some people gay? Why are some people homophobic? Why aren’t people successful in preventing a suicide?
These questions bring in actor #h, #d’s father who is a minister
From here I begin fleshing out the characters using a format that is not overly complicated and take up time better spent writing the story. Its purpose is to give each actor human qualities and keep them consistent, especially if the writing is over an extended period of time. (As they come on stage, I go back and put their names in the “Actors” section)
1. Being a visual-type person, the first thing I do is find a picture that resembles the kind of person I have in mind. This helps with some of the descriptive points below. An Internet search helps find that.
2. Name: This one was easy. He’s European (Caucasian and White are racist and totally wrong terms. Neither apply to fair-skin humans as do colors used to describe other groups of people.) I have used a phone book, researched baby names on the Internet, even shook the family tree. Using characters from other parts of the world was difficult BC – Before Computers. You can use the Google translator to make up something in any of 103 languages. (In “Love and Treachery,” the actor, Beautiful Flower in Esperanto is Belafloro modified to Belaflora, the feminist version)
3. Nicknames: Optional but can help the reader to better picture the character in their mind. In a recent post, writing guru Melanie Anne Phillips said:
“Nicknames are wonderful dramatic devices because they can work with the character’s apparent physical nature or personality, work against it for humiliating or comedic effect, play into the plot by telegraphing the activities in which the character will engage, create irony, or provide mystery by hinting at information or a back-story for the character that led to its nickname but has not yet been divulged to the readers. Consider using nicknames in addition to or instead of characters’ proper names to add flavor and familiarity to their personalities.”
– “Nick Names,” Storymind.com, October 17, 2019
In “Love and Treachery,” one character is Loopy and another Cricket. Loopy likes to make people laugh and does/says strange things to accomplish that. Cricket was a chatterbox as a child. He changed while growing up but the name stuck. Be careful. Some names might be hurtful or sensitive to the character. Cricket loves his older brother and they have a close relationship. Big brother has a hidden sense of humor and when Cricket’s hormones kick in he develops a problem, hence the name, Drippy. Only big brother can use that name. Anyone else calls him that, even brother Loopy, there’s gonna be trouble in River City.
4. Role: Why is he here in the first place?
5. Birth date sets the time during which the character lives and the kind of people it produced and getting old too fast.
6. Place: Can dictate how they act and think by the kind of culture they were brought up in.
7. Sign: Astrological attempts at defining a person’s personality and actions can suggest things noted further down the form.
8. Age: This establishes how a character behaves and helps keep track of events if spanning more than a year or two. For instance, I have seen a 14- year-old do something in chapter two and three years later do something in chapter thirteen when he was twenty. Yeah. Kids grow up fast but come on.
9. Coloring: People in one culture are not all the same color. They will range from very dark to very light. No exceptions. Every culture.
10. Height and Weight: Appropriate to age, sex, and ethnicity. Like skin tone, people range from anorexic to Sumo. All men do not have six-packs and all women do not wear a size-C cup. These two details determine how they move, their stamina, how others perceive them, and what they can and can not do physically and/or mentally.
11. Eyes: From dark and deep-set to shallow and ice blue that give the impression they are looking through you. A useful tool to express internal emotion or get another character’s attention.
12. The green-shaded area: For a quick note regarding these entries or link to a more detailed entry below.
13. Hair: The color, texture, type, style – there are thousands of combinations that can tell something about their personality.
14. Features/marks: Physical things that define the individual. Perhaps jewelry. A man with a hairy chest or a woman with a wooden leg. Facial fair – his or hers. An identifying birthmark or scar would have a brief backstory.
15. Dress: Can tell something about their personality or bring attention to the actor.
Now, we get to the nitty-gritty that governs how he acts within himself and around others. This is when I pull out fact sheets put together over the years. In the story from which this sketch is taken, Gerald is dyslexic, has learning disabilities, and periodic depression. (Each has a descriptive fact sheet) Everyone has some sort of challenge that defines how they are going to act and others act toward them. Add quirks, habits, voice, and/or gestures to humanize. There’s a Fibber McGee closet of useful things available.
Others: Who support or undercut Eddie’s beliefs and actions toward Gerald?
Notes: Here’s where the preceding information is tied together as signposts as not venturing too far astray.
Backstory: Ah, yes. Good ol’ backstory. Generally useful for the author to better understand who is being created here. Again, Melanie Anne Phillips:
“For your characters to be compelling, your readers will need to think of them as real people, not just dramatic functionaries or collections of traits.
To help make this happen, have each of your characters write a short one-page autobiographical piece about themselves in their own words, describing their childhoods, backgrounds, activities, interests, attitudes, relationships, pet peeves and outlooks on life.
Try to write these in the unique voice of each character and from their point of view. Don’t write about them; let them write about themselves.
This will give you the experience of what it is like to see the world through each character’s eyes, which will help you empathize with their motivations and thereby make it easier for you to write your novel in such a way that your readers can step into your characters’ shoes.”
– “Characters Write Their Own Life Stories,” Storymind.com, October 18, 2019
In all likelihood, only snippets of backstory are used at pertinent times to explain or hint at why an actor behaves as they do.
Other: Whatever trips your trigger to help flesh out and understand this individual.
Of the eight actors, only four needed fleshing out. In all truthfulness, that and the outline took most of a Sunday afternoon moving between the patio and office. The 4,700-word draft story took up 3-hours on Monday.
MAKING A FORM
To constructing a worksheet like this build a simple Table of columns and rows and then merge into desired blocks. That allows for expansion as you add information to a cell. You can use auto-numbering or bullets in the lower half but sometimes that can get in the way.
This is how I can write a 7,000+ word chapter or short story in one day.