Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Know Your Characters

Don't expect the puppets of your mind to become the people of your story. If they are not realities in your own mind, there is no mysterious alchemy in ink and paper that will turn wooden figures into flesh and blood.  --Leslie Gordon Barnard, Canadian short story writer, 1890-1961.

Over the years I've learned to cut pictures out of magazines to represent the characters in my story; created detailed character charts chronicling my characters' mannerisms, beliefs, histories; cobbled together the rules of my worlds and the power structures that dominate them. It helps. Now. At first I felt compelled to reveal everything in too-heavy dialogue or information dumps. I've gotten better. Now all that groundwork allows me to set the story and weave the other stuff in at the right time.

Then I start editing and find myself making all kinds of drastic changes to my manuscript. Turning a YA into a MG. Eliminating subplots. Getting rid of and combining characters. My story always seems to be changing. My challenge is nailing it down long enough to make across-the-board edits so everything sounds consistent.

What do you do to flesh out the "puppets of your mind" so they look, sound and act like real people? How do you go about revising your manuscript when you change your story so that all of your details relate to your new story and not your old one?

Kim Van Sickler


  1. I have a list of questions that I've honed over the years that I answer for all my major characters, & answer at least in part for sceondary ones. I list dialogue (to hear the voice), & give the character's history. Not all the history goes into the novel, but I need to know it to know how my character got to be where they are on Page 1. I also ask minor questions like "What is in his/her pocket right now?"
    Revising can be tough. I did a revision a couple years ago, where I eliminated a character from a novel. Every time I cut her from a scene it was like snippping a thread in a tapestry. Other things unraveled that the cut character was holding together. It took me a long time to re-weave it.

  2. I really love this quote. For me I start with voice and little things that usually involve food. I always want to know what my character would and wouldn't eat.
    I do like the interview process too.

  3. To varying degrees for major and minor, I find myself discovering my characters as I start to write them. For the main and major characters, I know many facts and back story about them before I start, but I don't discover the voices and how they move until they speak and start "doing things." For more minor characters, I've frequently found myself inventing them on the fly.

    As for revising, I like Kathy's image of threads in a tapestry. I've removed or combined major characters and had to go through the rest of the manuscript patching the holes left by their removal.

  4. Great post and good questions. I don't do extensive prep work beforehand (pantser over here) but I applaud those who do. My work comes in the middle, that's just how I work. I know a basic outline of character traits when i start but it isn't until the characters speak to me that I know. *Really* know.