Story Prep & Character Development

I’m slowly coming to the end of my story and while tying everything together I have to make sure all my backup documents are in order. You know, make sure I have all my ducks in a row.  I don’t want to leave any loose ends or dropped story lines.

I do very little prep before I start writing but a few things I do faithfully. I thought I would share these things with you. You may find them helpful.

First: I write two mini-bios. Below are the questions I complete for each main character. Both these examples came from the book “Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting Dynamic Characters and Effective Viewpoints by: Nancy Kress.

********

Mini-Bio for Key Characters

Name:

Age:

Birthplace:

Marital Status:

Children and their ages:

General appearance:

Living arrangements: (i.e., lives with wife and three young children; rents ramshackle apartment alone; has tent in nomadic tribe with three concubines)

Occupation, including name of employer: (if applicable)

Degree of skill at occupation (loves it, hates it, regards it as “just a job,” has mixed feelings, is actively searching for other employment)

Family background (whatever you think is important: ethnicity, siblings’ names, parents’ names, social status, clan affiliation, total repugnance toward everybody he knew before the age of twelve)

********

Emotional Mini-Bio for Key Characters

Name:

What three or four things does this person value most in life?

(i.e. success, money, family, god, love, integrity, power, peace and quiet)

What three things do they most fear?

What is this person’s basic underlying attitude about life?

What do they need to know about a person in order to accept that other as “all right” and trustworthy?

What would cause this person more pain than anything else possible?

What would this person consider the most wonderful thing that could ever happen to them?

What three words would this person use to describe himself or herself, accurate or not?

********

I try to have a firm grasp on my characters when I start writing even if I don’t have a firm grasp on the story. I also come up with a list of key phrases that they most often say. Expletives or common expressions, for example, Sarah says “Dammit” and Ali says “Oh hell.”

I’ll write a couple of journal entries from the characters point of view just to get an idea of what they’re made of. I try to focus on their history and their current state-of-mind so I can accurately portray them in my writing. This is very helpful in making them real individuals and not just a random picture in my head.—which brings me to my next step. I look for pictures of people I think most resemble my character. Sarah happens to look a lot like Keri Russell, when I think of Mark, Chris Pine comes to mind but with darker hair. Brian looks similar to Eric Bana or Brody Jenner, Eric is slightly too old and Brody is too young but they both resemble him in looks-yes, he’s very hot!

In addition I make a list of all characters, which often changes by the end of the story. I list their names, ages and occupations. Then tie together how they’re all related to each other.

I make a timeline highlighting important events in the lives of my main characters. Births, marriages, divorces, birth of their children, etc.

When starting a new story I pick a date on the calendar, like September 22nd. Then I print a calendar for September through whenever—however long it takes to finish the story. my first manuscript starts on September 22nd and ends mid-January. I use the printed calendar to mark current events. For example, one entry under November 10th might say “Sarah’s attacker arrested” or under October 18th, “Sarah and Mark fight—break up” or “Sarah and Mark’s first kiss”. (It is a love story after all 🙂 )

I also had to list the marriages of Sarah’s parents because both had been married numerous times. I couldn’t keep them straight so I had to make a list of wedding dates, divorces and last names. Every time Sarah’s mother divorced she moved to another state so I had to track each move by city and Sarah’s age at the time of the move. As you can imagine the timeline is very long.

I’d be curious to hear how you all started, besides the typical outline.

9 thoughts on “Story Prep & Character Development

  • “Very little prepwork??????” Uh — NOT.

    This is unbelievably helpful!! I have to admit that I just started writing, blind, on November 1. I had a couple of pages of ideas for vignettes, and a couple of characters, and a one-sentence starting point.

    Now, 54,000 words later, I have several pretty cool vignettes and a couple of characters I like –and some that are so non-memorable that when I grazed through a couple of early chapters this week, I’d forgotten they were there at all.

    I still do not have a great plot — I have these characters who do stuff, some of which is fun to read, but there is no narrative conflict that carries the whole thing along and makes you want to read it all. The calendar is a great idea.

    I’m going to continue to write kind of blindly for the rest of the month and hope I tie up the loose ends — or at least make it clear (to me if to no one else) why all these characters are in the same book.

    Then I’m going to do something completely different for a little while — a non-fiction thing I’m working on, some poetry, some baking — and look at this mess again some time mid-December.

    At that point, I think I’ll use your calendar idea to see if that can help me pinpoint (and create as needed) a real, extended story line with real conflict that is sustained over the course of the novel. I have little conflicts that fit in the vignettes, but nothing overarching that would keep this going as a novel.

    Despite the overwhelming flaws of my story, this has been a great experience and I’m looking forward to continuing it, albeit in a less fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants mode.

    Maybe. Or maybe I’ll just continue along this way — I figure if an infinite number of monkeys typing can come up with Shakespeare, if I write enough, I ought to be able to do something too.

    • The calendar and timeline are priceless tools, for sure. The timeline because these people have been friends all their lives so I have to keep their ages/birth dates and wedding dates straight throughout three stories. The calendar I use everyday and it almost works as an outline, I can look back at events for easy reference. I wish I would have thought to share this info before NaNo.

  • Well, I probably would have been too scared off by it to have made use of it. Because I wouldn’t have had anything to put in it.

  • Wow Dayner! Don’t ever accuse me of being organized again! LOL The character development and outline that I did was far less detailed than this.

    First thing I do is pick a MC and the premise the story will be built around.

    The next thing I do is line out the beginning, middle and end. Then I go back in and fill in the scene settings, working forward first and then working backward to fill in backstory where things seem to jump. (I learned this from K.M. Weiland.)

    I pick characters that will be needed to develop the story and write down their names and their relations to the MC and the scenes in which they will appear.

    I showed you an example earlier of how I get to know my characters, so I think you understand how I do that.

    As for an outline this is basically what I had. I won’t post the whole outline but here is a snippet.

    Chapter One – Homecoming
    Setting – Baymore
    Setting – Alice’s car on the ride home
    Setting – Inside Cesar’s Apaertment

    Chapter Two – Eviction Notice
    Setting – The next morning – Cesar’s Apartment
    Setting – The Train Station
    Setting – The Studio

    Chapter Three – Huan’s Coming Out
    Setting – The cab ride
    Setting – The Black Raven
    Setting – The Alley

    That is basically it. This goes on for 20 chapters in my current WIP. The settings remind me of the scenes, which also remind me of who the players are in that scene. It also allows me go back and locate a section if I need to look something up I may not have remembered. Like the cab drivers name. A character that is minor so I wouldn’t do a character study on him.

    Mentally I have already prepared to make sure that each scene attacks the characters flaw or adds suspense to the story in some way. So these setting markers are reminders. I try not to plan to solidly because I like to allow creative freedom. (When that actually happens – not often)

    I really like the timeline table – excellent idea! I leave the setting titles in the novel until it is complete. This way I can reference the table of contents to find a particular scene and page number. But once the novel is complete I remove the setting headings.

    That is pretty much my planning in a nutshell.

    If I were to write a series, as you are doing, I would definately need to keep a more detailed account of my characters than I have. I understood that as I started to follow your story and wondered how you kept so much information straight. Now I see how!

    Thanks for the great link also. I have added it to my list of MUST KEEP websites.

  • The big difference is you have a rough idea of how many scenes and chapters you’ll write. Mine just sort of happens as the characters interact. Which makes it a bit of a mess. I have trouble transitioning from one scene to another. Something I need to work on.

  • With most of the things I do, I prepare before I begin. When it comes to writing, it seems I’m brain dead until I sit at my laptop and the juices begin to flow.

    I admire your thoughtful preparations and I’m sure your efforts pay off.

    Happy Thanksgiving.

    • This is true for me story wise but not character wise. The characters are prepared and well thought out but not the story–that has to come as I write.

  • I have absolutely nothing to add but awe. I was so busy tap dancing at the county fair that I did virtually no planning for this month and that is evident in my ‘product’ which is beginning to inch its way toward having a plot, but very slowly. Some of the characters I like best just showed up unannounced in my Flash Fiction 55s.

  • kathanink

    Duuuuuuh (drool coming out of my mouth).

    I am totally dumbfounded – great job! I certainly didn’t do near this amount of prep before I started. I had done a tiny bit of research on mental homes in the early 1900’s for the story I was originally going to write, but when I switched like 3 days before, I only had time to do a tiny bit. Some I did during, but this is amazing!

    I would like to use some of your tools in my rewrite. I think getting a better idea of what my characters look/sound like on paper might help me more in creating better images.

    Thanks! No wonder you’re able to write 80k in less than a month and I was barely able to eek out 50k. Maybe more prep would help me!

Leave a Reply