Writing a book is a long and weary process. So, what did I do after accomplishing this great feat? I started in on the next novel. It’s a completely new story with new characters, new plots, new everything. But this time, I am tracking my steps along the way. This time I am hoping for more efficiency in my process. As this blog is my journey in writing, my new destination is Characterization. Today it’s time for Step #2 in my “Step Driven Action to Creating Characters” as I delve into writing novel number two.
As a reminder, Step #1 was entitled, Re-Research. This is where I went back to revisit my resource books on creating story characters. I may have already read them, but that doesn’t mean I remember everything. I decided a refresh was in order. For this step, I revisited The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass, Creating Character Arcs, by K.M. Weiland, and a new book, just recommended by a fellow author, Carmen Peone, Getting into Character, by Brandilyn Collins. When I return to resources that were of use before, new learning tends to stand out. Learning I already thought I knew and understood takes on new meaning, at a deeper level. It’s all very worthwhile. If a refresher is needed, here is Step #1: https://stepsinbetween.com/2020/05/17/my-step-driven-action-to-creating-characters-step-one/
Now we are onto step number two, where I am ready to go back and mentally sketch out my characters. I say go back because when I first started in on my new manuscript, I skipped this step. Big mistake!
Step #2: Paper Doll (Flattened Names on a Page)
When I was a little girl, I loved playing with paper dolls. I think now, I understand why. It was that creative play time where I could change my mind about the adventures my characters were on at any given moment. All I had to do was change my dolls’ clothes, mid-play, if something wasn’t working. I could revise a character’s reactions, moods, or start a whole new storyline. This live-time, talking-out-loud stage of creation, felt as light as a feather. And feathers are easy to carry around or toss in the wind.
For me, waiting until everything was perfectly planned may have meant the story might never come to be…my mom had a knack of calling “Dinner!” right when things were getting interesting. Today, I know my characters will continue to grow as my story develops, although in the beginning stages of writing, having the freedom to change my mind creates an open space for inventiveness.
I believe this is because I usually develop my characters first, then the plot and storyline. When I have a bounty of options for my characters’ behaviors and beliefs, then it doesn’t slow down my process when the real plotting becomes necessary. If one behavior or reaction doesn’t fit the mood or situation, I can glance down and quickly grab another. Or I am able to fine tune a character trait I had earlier brainstormed yet hadn’t thoroughly flushed through.
Beginning this process is simple. There are no rules. I jot down my character names and start planning who each of them is meant to be. Let me repeat, they will only be names on a page, nothing more…yet. I believe this is the step I skipped when I originally began my new story, Life Song. I had already begun writing my new character as if we were old friends. But, as I mentioned in my post for Step #1, when my critique partner read my initial pages, she didn’t care for my new character at all. She didn’t understand why my character reacted the way she did. This is because I hadn’t gone as deep or wide, illustrating other parts of her first. I must grasp the sympathy or empathy from my reader for them to care. I need to change the clothes on this current paper-doll-character, until the meaningful parts of her align with the story. Since I had initially skipped this step, I was stuck trying to mold a bulky mannequin into a shape she couldn’t hold. I had already attached bones and a heart, Frankenstein-style, but she was in the wrong position. I was stuck!
After a glass of wine, some good ole contemplation, and a reminder to myself that this was the importance of a critique group, I reflected. I had written my MC as if she were sitting at my dinner table all three-dimensional-like, when the reader (my critique partner) didn’t know her yet. How could she? I didn’t know her myself. I had only given her the emotions to fit the situation on the page. It would be like inviting a perfect stranger over for lunch, but not knowing anything about them except their name. I wouldn’t know whether or not to offer her coffee or tea. Is she a sandwich person? Soup-lover? Does she crave greasy French fries? Each of these simple questions needs an answer, even if they don’t make it to the story.
Each answer to the seemingly random questions above lead to understanding more internal information about a character, adding depth. Maybe a character is health conscious, so green tea is her beverage of choice. Or maybe she starts her day with a smoothie. If she’s health conscious and starts her day with a smoothie, I’m guessing she might be a morning person, and would never be caught eating greasy French fries…unless it’s a guilty pleasure only her best friend knows about. Do you see what just happened here?
I could keep going, but the idea of knowing if a character drinks tea, or better yet, smoothies, tells me more than simple beverage preferences, it reveals to me where her priorities are when obstacles arise. It tells me when she can’t start her day in her organized routine of smoothie, workout, shower, she may feel off-kilter, leading to crankiness, and possibly the inability to think through problems clearly. She might come across as rude or standoffish when really, she’s disappointed in herself. Who knows? This is the fun of just jotting everything down around a flattened-out name. Through processing a new story, the parts of a character that matter and are important to the plot, will begin to connect and grow. This will eventually lead us to step #3 when we mold our two-dimensional characters into three dimensional shapes (more realistic than a mannequin). But remember, no skipping steps! We can’t know the possibilities if we don’t consider anything and everything. And to do that, we must allow ourselves to let go and brainstorm.
Step #2 is making a paper doll. The actual creation of a doll isn’t so important. It simply a character’s name scribbled on a page. Although I’ve been known to draw stick figures before or copy and paste a photo from Pinterest next to a name. There is no right way to pre-plan.
The important part is the name. This is where I also include the character’s middle name, even if it’s never mentioned in the story. Then out from her name, I draw brainstorm lines listing every trait, feeling, or phrase she might say. I think about her favorite movie, preferred snack, and what she does on weekends. I play around at surface level but also dive as deep as I can…all at once in this brainstorm step. Let it be messy.
I scratch down short descriptions of the problem I think she might encounter, a few lies she may believe about herself, the reactions she might have in any given situation (those are random too), a variation of a truth she may learn by the story’s end…everything whether it fits into my presumed story or not, gets doodled onto the page. One insignificant detail can lead to a deeper underlining realization about a character that can reach a reader’s heart. And that’s the goal.
Think in terms of architecture, a miniature model of a town, the blueprints for a new house. Step #2 is the pre-planning stage for plotters and the try-on stage for pantsers. And although we strive to bring our characters to life right away, I think it’s this paper doll stage where we can create a foundation (a pool of possibilities) for the relationships between believable characters and readers. This is the step before we can attach the actual bones that will support our three-dimensional characters in a story. The ones we can invite over for lunch and know exactly what to serve.
Once the re-researching time concludes (see Step #1), it’s time to brainstorm…paper doll style. In this light way, we can begin the heavy work of creating believable characters.
Step #1: Re-Research (go back to your writing resource books on characterization), relearn!
Step #2: Paper Doll (Flattened Names on a Page), brainstorm!
Step #3: Coming soon…remember, I’m figuring this all out as I go! That’s the journey, and that’s the fun that keeps me coming back to write more, one step at a time.
Happy Writing (because at least you’re writing),
Celaine Charles, June 14, 2020
Content and Image Credit:
https://thelovelydrawer.com/product/paper-dolls/ (paper dolls)
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