The Wednesday Wondering – It’s character building, or so they say!

So, you’ve decided to write a book and you’ve created a cast of characters to fill the pages. You have the absolute power to decide about every facet of their background, personality and behaviour. So, my Wednesday Wondering for this week is to ask how you do it? For example, do you plot every little detail from their birthday, to the name of their childhood pet, their favourite band and what they like on their toast in the morning? Perhaps you find pictures of people who look like your characters to help with physical descriptions? Or maybe you just start with a rough idea of their motivation, and a few physical characteristics, and then let them evolve for themselves?

Ooh, it’s my penultimate Wednesday Wondering and I’ll soon by passing the baton to my lovely friend, Deirdre. Where on earth has the time gone? Story of my life really; that I always seem to be playing catch-up. Four children, three dogs, three jobs and a burning desire to be a published novelist has not a plotter made. I write whenever and wherever I can. So, as a result, I’ve always been a bit of pantser and my characters have only ever started out as vague concepts in my head. I love getting to know them as the book develops though and seeing their characters evolve. It probably sounds weird to anyone who doesn’t write, but the things my characters end up doing more often than not take me by surprise. Crazy, but true and I’m not alone as at least one of the other WRs has said the same thing!

I’m working on a trilogy of books which each feature one of three women in the lead. The protagonist in my first book, Sarah, arrived fairly well formed as she’s predominantly based on me. I would like to think I know myself fairly well, therefore I know Sarah fairly well too. I developed her a best friend from primary school called Elise who seemed to arrive in my mind fairly well formed and then a third character, Clare, appeared when I realised I needed Sarah to have two friends who would provide contrasting views on the scenario she was faced with and therefore cause her conflict. Clare therefore needed to be the exact opposite of Elise so her personality was quite easy to form too.

I have a box of quite large coloured index cards and I have (somewhat sexist-ly) created a pink card for each main female character and a blue card for the males. I’ve captured things like eye colour, hair colour, age, sibling names, job, DOB etc – all those details that may crop up a couple of times and I don’t want to have to do a search for key words on my MS to find out whether I gave Sarah blue, green or brown eyes.

I’ve been working on my trilogy for over a decade, though, so the characters are really well formed in my head. In the very early days, I actually did something resembling a CV for Sarah but of her personal life rather than career. Hardly surprising I took this approach given that my day job at the time was a recruitment manager! I’m thinking that, when I get to my first non-trilogy book, I will probably have to do something similar and do more work on a CV or index cards to build the characters in terms of appearance and personality because I certainly don’t want to spend 11 years on it just to know my characters really well!

By contrast, I have a writing friend who spends hours scouring the internet for drawings or photos of what her characters would look like and goes out exploring places and settings. She has these all over her office and has reams and reams of details. She works out how they’d react to a million situations (not necessarily ones that appear in her book) and feels this helps her really get to grips with her characters. She’s a huge JK Rowling fan and I know JK supposedly developed reams of detail about her characters that didn’t necessarily come out in the books (a famous example being that Dumbledore is gay) so I wonder if this is what has inspired her to delve into such great detail.

I don’t really plot the characters lives although possibly I should. I often have a clear idea of the hunky hero (Simon Baker, Simon Baker and Ooh, Simon Baker- The Mentalist) but I’m always a bit hazy on the heroine and actually not so good at that. They definitely evolve as time goes by and I realise they need to be say, a bit more needy, or self-disciplined. Never, ever have I mapped out their timeline, parents, hang-ups or childhood friends. Apart from deciding the heroine should end up with Simon Baker, of course.

Lego people

I plot everything. If you really wanted to know I could tell you Finn and Zoe’s birthdays, favourite bands and what they like for breakfast. Before I started writing the novel I had their complete backstory mapped out. Ninety percent of it I didn’t need but it helped me when I started. They did evolve a lot as I went along though. In the future I don’t think I’ll do so much planning. Having learned how characters grow and develop as I go along I think (although I may turn out to be wrong) that I can be a little bit more relaxed in the next book.

Helen R
I tend to come up with two names as a starting point. I then work up a character CV, detailing hair colour, eye colour, date of birth, job…all the basics. I then try to find a picture online that I can save in a document to look at when I need to…one day when I have a dedicated study I will put these pictures in the room so I can see them all the time.

My characters are semi-developed when I start writing but I think that it’s important to be flexible. I find that as I write, I get to know more and more about each one and so I start to expand my notes.

Lots of how-to books on writing advocate listing every little detail about a character but that doesn’t work for me. I prefer to build them in a more organic kind of way. Often I start with a name and age, then a physical picture will suggest itself from that, like height, build, hair colour, and perhaps the way they speak and something of their personality and traits. I might base them on someone I know but they won’t be exactly the same and I don’t usually have a clear picture of their face, although I can still ‘see’ them in my mind’s eye, if that makes sense. Their characters will then develop through the way they deal with the problems I foist upon them, and how they interact with each other. Sometimes I ‘see’ my character in the street or in a picture in a magazine but I only get to know them through their actions, by which time I can’t force them to do a thing. I know it’s a cliché but my characters definitely have minds of their own when it comes to creating the plot!

As far as my characters are concerned I am a plotter. I have questions they need to answer, which is anything from their age and family background to their favourite music. I start to fill out my question sheets before I begin to write the first chapter. I don’t however insist on every question being answered and I never try to incorporate these answers into the story. The reader may not need to know that my heroine had a pet rabbit as a child, but I do. These answers help me to know her better, to know how she will react when she meets the hero.
Once these sheets have been partially completed they sit on my desk as an instant point of reference or in case I suddenly discover a new answer.

I also think that having a visual on my characters is good and love to find the perfect picture that fits the image I have in my head of each character as I begin my story. These are then put on my pin board above my computer screen.

Helen P
When I first began thinking about writing The Ghost House I knew that I wanted my protagonist to be a strong female, I wanted her to be loyal to her husband even though he was going to be a horrible man. I also wanted a character who was just an ordinary woman who fights the same battles as the majority of us. I didn’t want her to have a perfect figure or long sleek hair. I wanted her to look like the woman who walks down the street and could be any one of us, someone who fights as many inner demons as most of us. I wanted her to be a policewoman but not a detective or an Inspector. Not many writers have characters who are community police officers so I thought this would be a good a chance to show her caring side and her day to day job.

Will was so easy to come up with he is a dream, in fact I would probably say he is my dream man. Once he realised it was time to change his ways he does it so completely how could you not fall in love with him. I wanted Annie to have a knight in shining armour because that what she deserves.

Now that you’ve heard how The Write Romantics do it, come and tell us if you are a plotter or a pantser when it comes to developing your characters – we’d love to know!

Jo xx

7 thoughts on “The Wednesday Wondering – It’s character building, or so they say!

  1. Oh Jackie, I think Will has a bit of Simon Baker in him, he has his hair and eyes. In fact I think Simon Baker could be Will in the tv series if it ever happens 😉 Would you mind sharing him?

    Fantastic hearing how everyone comes up with their characters, great post Jo.

    Helen xx

  2. Umm, might have to rethink how much I plan, as I have spent ages having to go back during the WiP to look for details. Might even need to adopt Julie’s approach and get myself some index cards one of these days… x

  3. Ooh, what an interesting question.
    Some of the characters in Book One formed immediately in my mind and were actually what decided me to go back to writing before I even had a plot.
    I read all the advice about doing a complete back story for the characters, finding out all their likes and dislikes, favourite films, education etc and I did try. Honestly! As the book developed though, I found they weren’t really who I thought they were at all and they took on a life of their own, so now I just let them be themselves and find out who they are as I go along. I do find it easier to have a picture of them in my mind, though. I have “cast” the books so I can see them as I write about them. The hero of Book One was easy to cast and boy, did I have fun with him! 🙂
    I’m currently writing Book Two in the series and have a whole new hero. He made a small appearance in Book One so I know a bit about him already. He’s not like my first hero at all, and has a very different home life. He’s sort of telling me about himself as we go along, if that makes sense?
    All my secondary characters were very easy to cast but, like Jackie, I find the heroines more elusive. I can never find someone who is “just right” for them so they are pretty hazy – physically, at least. I find writing them in first person helps me to know them and get closer to them so maybe having a clear picture of their appearance doesn’t matter so much.
    Totally agree about the index cards though. I have already had to check Book One a few times to remind myself about eye colour etc. I must get myself more organised! x

    • Hi Sharon

      Thanks for sharing your techniques. I am glad that a least one other person is a bit vague about the planning too! Are you setting the series of books in the same place and will you be changing the heroines as well as the heroes from book to book. I really admire the way that you and Julie write so well in the first person, as it’s not something I have ever done and I’m not sure if I could 🙂 Good luck and, remember, we have first dibs on an interview with you when you get the call for book 1!

      Jo xx

      • Hi Jo.
        There are four books in the series, all set in the same place but featuring a different hero and heroine in each one. I have rough outlines in place for all four and know who will end up together and I admit I’m getting fond of all the characters and will be sad to see them leave.
        I do have ideas for three stand-alone novels , though, so hopefully I’ll come to terms with their loss pretty quickly!

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