The Road to NaNoWriMo 2016: Building Characters

One of the weaknesses that I've noticed in my writing comes from characterization: judging from the reviews that I've gotten for my books, it seems as if my characters don't seem to fall in line with the other beats of the story. I understand where this is coming from--in a way, it's a leftover from my days as a pantser--but even I have problems getting it right, even after several drafts.

I've tried using character interview sheets in the past, but I find that it makes the problem even worse; I feel like I have to answer so many questions that ultimately won't make it into my book, no matter how much work I put in to make them as vivid as possible in my mind. Besides, I don't have enough time to answer 50-100 questions about each and every character in my book if they're not going to be important in the first place.

I know, right? It's blasphemy. And it feels like lazy writing, but that's how I work.

Lately, I've tried a different tack on characterization, which I've picked up from both Rachel Aaron and K. M. Weiland during my struggles to finish my last manuscript. I've boiled down my character sheets into seven questions:

- Name
- Age
- Occupation
- Physical Description
- I like:
- I hate:
- More than anything, I want:

And for the lead characters, I add:

- The lie that I tell myself (click here for the explanation from Helping Writers Become Authors)
- The truth that will set me free (not exactly part of this article, but I used it as a jump-off point)

The thing is, because I was better at plotting than characterization, I could see a need for structure in terms of who my characters were and where they wanted to go in the story. Doing the character sheets in advance, therefore, was a way to reveal the baggage that everyone carried into the narrative.

For example: Christian, my dashing love interest, is one of those perfect specimens who can eat all the bacon that he wants and still look as hot and athletic as he was in high school. When I opened up the Excel spreadsheet for the plot, I found that his character development was out of sync with the hero's journey that my main character had to go through over the course of that fateful weekend at the beach. Enter the character sheet, where I wrote down all of my impressions of him (e.g. he likes gourmet food and hates cheap booze)--and I realized that I didn't understand what he did for a living. So I did my research and found information on internal auditors in the Philippines, who tend to start out in accounting firms before going into auditing. That was when I realized that he couldn't be an auditor at 27, though his goal is to be one someday. So I decided that he would have a job at his dad's accounting firm, which would give him the outward appearance of stability. That stability, then, became part of his lie: all his life he had always done the right thing, but he hadn't been rewarded for all of his good deeds, and he ended up losing the one he wanted because of his quest to be seen as the good guy. Thus, the truth that would set him free is the realization that just because he's "the good guy" doesn't mean that he has the power to get other people to see things his way. My challenge, therefore, is to make it clear to the reader that he genuinely wants this relationship with our girl, not out of penance or obligation, but because he sees someone with whom he can have his happily-ever-after. And the greatest obstacle to that goal is his need to be seen as "the good guy" who only does nice things. This means I'll have to write one hell of a grand gesture where he really has to grovel and make his intentions known to our heroine.

Even with the brevity of the questions, I still had difficulties coming up with sheets for all the other characters, especially since some of them have so little page time. (There's one character who only appears in one scene, but I had to draw up a sheet for him because his past affects everyone else in the story.) And yet, there are some surprises that emerged when I worked on them--especially the insidious secrets that they kept from each other that would end up changing everything if they were revealed. Why them? Why now? Who would end up getting hurt? And so on.

I had a lot of fun drawing up those sheets, though, so I was able to come up with a mini-reference for my characters. The visuals, on the other hand, would have to wait, since I'm running on limited data with my Internet plan (*waves fist at Smart*) and I want to use my library time for actual studying in the next two weeks. Since I'm working with Scrivener, however, I'll see if I can maximize the "research" function so I can build up my visual library for the book.

That said, the question still remains: Will I end up pantsing my character development anyway? Depends on what my characters tell me while I'm writing their story. Planning ahead means that they don't have time to be belligerent and lazy. The fact remains that they were the ones who told me the story first when I drew up the outline, so I have to remind them that I'm in charge. But I wouldn't mind discovering a little bit of character development while I'm writing the story, either, so let's see how it goes in November.

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