I think there are possibly two questions that writers detest – “Where do you get your ideas from?” and “Do you know where the story is going when you begin, or do you just make it up?” I freely admit that I used to be a ‘seat of the pants’ writer. I’d have the start and end of a story in mind, and I’d just make things up as I went along in order to connect point B to point A. Sometimes I even did it in that order. After reading James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure and Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering, I’ve started to work a little differently. Today’s post is not about a writing process, or plotting vs pantsing. Nope, it’s about the beauty of the character sheet.
I’ve just started work on a new project (no, it’s not one I’ve talked about on here) and currently I have a single scene completed. Wow, you might think. You’re really pushing the boat out there, Icy. Well to be honest, I’m not letting myself write anything until I’ve finished my WiP (discussed here) but I’m also having a go at character building before I get much of the writing done. I’ve discovered that planning in advance lets me do the actual writing bit a lot faster – and there are fewer inconsistencies to smooth out in the editing stages.
I don’t have many characters in the new story. If I’m honest, I have only two main characters, along with a cast of secondary performers. They’re the ones I’ll make up as I go along, but my two main players need to be more firmly entrenched in my mind before I get going. I worry that making them up as I go along might lead them to appear outlandish or implausible, as I add extra traits to fit the demands of the plot. This is why I’ve begun a character sheet for each of them.
Some writers use these religiously, and include all sorts of information including the physical appearance, neuroses and random other pieces of data about their characters. Thus far, I’ve never bothered, but this time I’ve tried some ‘free association’ to build each character. I started with the villain, since I think a story can be won or lost based on the antagonist, and I’ve tried to really explore what makes her tick. Why is she such an organisational freakshow? Why are her standards so impossibly high? Is she cruel, or just less in touch with her emotions than others? These are the things I’ve explored – not simply how she looks or what her childhood puppy was called.
However, something interesting has happened as a result. While I had a loose outline of the narrative trajectory, I now have ideas for extra scenes based upon this character sheet. Exploring her character actually suggests more plausible storylines, as well as explaining her motives and making her appear to be credible, rather than outlandish. Normally I’d start with a story idea and invent a character to fit the plot, but this time I feel like I’ve designed a plot that fits the character. Hopefully these little nuances will help to build a more cohesive story, and if I do find I get stuck at any stage of the writing, I can look through the character sheets to see if anything within their characters actually suggest a way through the block.
How about you? Do you plan your characters, or let them take form in a more organic fashion?