Character Preparation … Stuff I Don’t Do


On Monday, our own Mindy Klasky started a series on how she writes a synopsis, which I am dying to read because … uh … I have no idea how I do it. I mean, I do it, I write them, but I don’t know if I do it right. I know I must have my own way of constructing a synopsis because I have never read anyone else’s synopsis. Synopses. (shrugs) I’ve learned a lot from the other writers here at, and I am looking forward to her process.

Through MW, I have discovered one major way in which Mindy and David (and probably everyone else for that matter) do character research and planning in the pre-writing phase. They have their characters histories fully fleshed out, sometimes down to their childhood sports injuries, their pets’ names, the schools they went to (the characters, not the pets) and their favorite teachers. They know how the characters react to stresses, parents, love interests, and the events that triggered their growing up.  They know their characters’ favorite foods, their shoe sizes, and their job histories. They know their favorite ice-cream. Favorite TV shows.

I don’t. I seriously do not do that sort of character research. Not any of it. It seems that I am the only one who discovers the character herself or himself in the writing process, not ahead of time.  When it comes to character creation, it fear that I am (gasp) pretty much a pantser.

When I start the creative process for a novel, I start with three things: a character, the place in her soul where that character is broken, and the pivot plot point that will challenge that brokenness. That’s it. My synopsis is simply the method I use to build a plot around that pivot point.

All I know about my character is the stuff I need to build that plot synopsis. I may not know her eye color, her hair color, or how tall she is, unless those things pertain to the plot. If she has to fine a weapon, I decide at what point in her life she learned to shoot and why and who taught her. If she needs to be scarred to drive the plot, I decide how she was injured. But I don’t think about how any of those events affect her. That part of the character building is for the actual writing.

Sometimes that methodology creates minor problems down the road. Case in point is the female character who is six feet tall but only wears a size seven and half shoe. Really? How does she balance on those tiny feet? I admit that it isn’t impossible to be tall with small feet or short with large feet, but it isn’t as likely as a tall woman with larger feet. Size ten at least. But I digress.

The few times I planned out ahead of time exactly who my character was, I got bored with her too quickly. Early on in my career, I realized that as a writer, I didn’t mind knowing everything about the plot – everything – before I started writing the novel. But I wanted to discover the character as I wrote. I wanted to watch her bloom like orchids opening along a stalk, one petal at a time, one flower at a time. I wanted to get inside her head as the reader did. I wanted to be surprised!

For me that is the joy of writing – that surprise, that discovery. So that part of the pre-writing process I won’t change. But I am eager to find out how others write synopses. Because (it isn’t a secret) I don’t think that writing synopses is very much fun. It is the nuts and bolts of writing for me. It is about as much fun as dry-stacking a stone wall, but without the dirt, the blisters, and the calluses.

For Jane Yellowrock, when I started the synopsis, I knew she was Cherokee, a skinwalker, had been on the trail of tears, (making her about 170 yrs old) liked guns, had commitment issues, had amnesia, and rode a Harley. That was it. The amnesia was a way to fully discover who she was, because she didn’t really know who she was herself when the series started. It’s been a wild ride and this latest book has taken me places I did not see coming.

I just turned in a JY book to my editor this morning. BLACK ARTS, number 7 in the series. I will start a Jane Yellowrock novella later on this week. The synopsis already looks daunting.

I hope someone else can teach me a way to inject some fun into the process.

Faith Hunter
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22 comments to Character Preparation … Stuff I Don’t Do

  • Wow! I’ve pulled the wool over your eyes! 🙂 I actually think our character process is very similar — I know my characters’ “cores” when I start writing, but I fill in the details as I go. (Example: I know that *my* Jane has commitment issues, in part because her mother abandoned her when she was two weeks old. I only recently discovered that she was not allowed to have a pet while she was growing up, even when she brought home a stray kitten, which only compounded her abandonment complex…)

    It’s funny – I think of myself as an author who writes character-based fiction. Generally, I “meet” my characters before I know anything about their plots, their worlds, etc. I focus on plot structure because it’s my weak point; I have trouble building in the proper beats to make an exciting story.

    And then the synopsis sweeps in (usually at the end, but I’ve fudged it for “payment on story” synopses), solidifying the character arc that I thought I knew when I started writing the beast.

    Hmmm… I’m now going to spend the rest of the day trying to figure out how I misled you into thinking that I know what I know about my characters… And then I’m going to work on using that power for good instead of evil 🙂

  • DawnCook

    I don’t plot my characters out either. I get to know them the way I get to know real people. Surface impressions of who they want to be, and then later, who they actually are and why.

    I’d rather write an entire book than a synopsis. Right there with you, Faith.

    It never fails to amaze me how everyone has a different way to write, but we all end up at the same place with a finished book.

  • I don’t go too deep into character background before starting, mostly a few key bits I need to keep straight, the starting point. It can be anywhere from a couple sentences to a paragraph. Much of it I either already have firmly in my head or learn as I’m writing. If I need to really explore a character (that happened in Rogue 5), I’ll write a little bit about the character’s past, sort of a synopsis, the catalyst that made them what they are in the present. Sometimes those pesky characters like to keep their past a secret, even from me. But usually, their pasts just kinda fall into my head as I put myself in theirs.

  • For my first novel I would use my hour long drive to work to get to know my main character and his story so I ended up knowing quite a bit about both him and the plot before I even started writing. For my latest novella I started with the a situation – The main character was bitten by a zombie so he went to a cabin in the woods to drink himself stupid and use his last bullet before he turned into a zombie himself. When he got to the cabin, though, he found a 3 year old boy who had been injured. He wanted to save the boy but the nearest hospital was 24 hours away by foot, and he didn’t have that long until the infection took over.

    The novella was so much fun to write because I got to discover the main character, as well as the rest of the story, as I went. I don’t know if that route would work for a story over 20,000 words but I hope to find out with the next novel I write.

  • Mindy, I was probably stuck in *deadline-brain* and just felt the writer’s usual plea of “I’m worthless” when I read your post. I’ll go back now and reread. But really, you and David always make me feel so pantser-ish in my pre-write methodology. You and he seem to know so much about your world and your magical systems and the end point of everything. I just seem to wing a lot of the stuff you nail down!
    However, your comment about the kitten made me feel so … normal?

    Daniel, That is sorta how I work. I fall into the character. Sometimes it is like drowning.

    Kevin, Oh Wow. I wanna read that story! Yeah, I’m getting ready to outline a Jane Yellowrock novella, and it will be a simple plot-pivot-point that gets derailed.

  • When I first started my current WIP, all I knew about the character was her basic backstory–why she was broken. I’ve enjoyed getting to know her better over the last year or so. Now that I know the whole story, I’m finding that I need to go back and fill in some gaps for her character to explain why she behaves certain ways throughout the novel.

  • Heh! Faith, I see it more as melding. It is, after all, a part of me. Like a Vulcan Mind Meld. “My mind to your mind.” Except for those B-holes that like to keep things from me…dang Verin Lastranos! 😉

  • I rarely even know my characters’ names before I start writing. I’ll come up with some cool idea – a vignette, or a what-if – and I start writing.

    Faith – to me you are a paragon of planning!

  • SiS, I totally get that way of writing.

    Daniel, I used the Vulcan mind meld in the WIP i just turned in. Geeks Unite!

    Lyn, I admit that I have to have a name. The *right name.* Nothing much happens unless I have a name for the character because for me, the name sets the character into my personal, creative reality.

  • Razziecat

    Faith, I need the name first, too. If for some reason I have to change the name, it always changes some aspect of the character, so I’m very careful to get the name right in the first place. Just a quirk of mine 🙂

    Beyond that, I don’t usually come up with much backstory right away. I know the character’s main function in the plot…MC, villain, love interest, or whatever…and some defining characteristic. Beyond that, I have to learn it as I go along, and like you, sometimes I’m very surprised at what I learn. Most of the time, that is. I have one character that pretty much burst fully-formed into being, like Athena leaping from the head of Zeus 🙂 Others have been rather closed-mouth and really make me work to learn who they are.

  • I sometimes have to write quite a bit before the “right” name comes to me. I’ll use a filler-name until the character reveals his or her true name. Thank the cyber-ghods for search and replace!

  • The name comes to me fairly early on, but I have to write to discover more about the character, too. What I always come up with before writing is the problem/situation the character has to face. And how it’s basically going to end. Probably more than that, but I definitely start with the problem (Point A) and basic end result (Point B). All else is negotiable. 🙂

  • Razzie, I have that problem too. If it’s a minor character I can live with the name change. If it’s a major character, it becomes hard to do the shifting. In Gwen’s novel Law Of The Wild, the pub house wanted to change all the names. Every-single-one. I finally just told them to do whatever they wanted. I have never reread that novel, and will never write another with those characters, because the names threw me off.

    Lyn, I tried that with Jane. She was Jane Doe. Seriously. I was planning to change it later. But once I started using the temp name, it became part of her, and created the whole amnesia thing and not knowing her past. All from a temp name. Once she had the name, it stuck and I had to write with it. (rolls eyes)

  • Laura, I think you pants a lot more than I do. 🙂

  • There are times when I wish that I didn’t need to know so much about my characters and world before starting a project. I feel like a coward most of the time, unwilling to go too far out on a literary limb for fear that it will break beneath me. Most of the prep work I do is rooted in my fear of finding myself in the middle of a book unable to move it further along. So I do all that background stuff to prevent unfortunate surprises down the road. I wish I could approach it more like you do, Faith.

  • I believe the term is “organic plotter”. 😛 (And I do plan the plot more before writing, I just meant this in regards to knowing my character.)

  • David, I’m actually considering trying to figure out more about the characters next thing I start. I might go so far as to write them up roleplaying game character style complete with backgrounds and such. Might be interesting (and a fun thing to give away some day in a drawing 😉 ).

  • Megan B.

    I am right there with you! When I decide things about a character in advance, they often turn out not to be true anyway. I need to get to know them as I go, and sometimes that means they’re a little bland in the first draft. But by then I’ve discovered more about them, and can go back through and put those tidbits in. On occasion this means rewriting some dialogue or a whole scene, but that’s okay by me.

  • David, I feel fear too. LOTS of fear. Fear that I am joke, a presumptuous fool for thinking I can write. But oddly, my fear takes different roads. See my comment to Daniel below…

    Laura, yes, that is the term! I couldn’t think of it!

    Daniel, I am going to be doing character descriptions and thoughts and lots of new info for the Jane Yellowrock Companion. I am terrified. Totally terrified that I will mess it all up!

    Megan, Yup. That’t it. Once written (keyed) in, it seems to take root and bloom in my mind. Gah…

  • quillet

    Faith, I’m like you in needing to know a character’s name before I can picture them or write them. And I have a really hard time re-naming them, because that changes their personality in my mind. And their looks! Funny how the mind works.

    However, I’m like David in that I need to know a lot about my characters before I feel confident in writing them. Not their whole childhood or all their favourite foods, but I definitely need a strong feel for their character and what they look like. And to find that out, I sometimes interview them. I’ll ask them a question or two, and then write a few paragraphs or pages & pages (depends on the characters; some of them are awfully tight-lipped!) in their “voice.” What I find out that way can sometimes surprise the heck out of me, but it’s a lot of fun to do, and it helps me to get to know them. It can also help to do it later on, too, if I get stuck in the story somewhere.

  • Quillet, When I first came up with the character Katie, I knew she was ash blond, tiny, and very very scary. And I knew her name. And I knew she was French. Or Spanish. Or half and half. Or maybe Norman. Her history is … out of sight right now. And quite tantalizing. I can’t wait for the book when I can write her history.

  • Now I’m wanting to see an “inorganic plotter” 😀