How We Write Wednesdays: Character Chart Time!

Let’s dig deeper into how critique groups and brainstorming can ramp up the motivation and plot we’ve spent the last two weeks of HoWW insisting will work much better, if you write from deeply-drawn character arcs. At least that’s been my experience while teaching and working with writers for years, as well as working on my own books and those of other authors like Jenni. Let’s go deeper into our Character Plotting conversation for another Wednesday, and you can let us know in the comments how we’re doing and if you want to hear more…

We left Jenni last week typing away on her laptop at the conference we attended together, after we’d spent the better part of an evening taking potshots at her work-in-progress. Actually, we’d been working pretty hard together (and pretty calmly, all things considered), trying to understand what wasn’t working and how to get every second of hard work she’d already put into the project to pay off. Which of course meant, as she and you now know, even more work.

She was going to have to rewrite. A lot. Frustrating? Sure. But our critique process is always focused on the work and making it better, so we typically wind up the emotional portion of the evening pretty quickly and get back to business. And for her book, that meant going back to the beginning and figuring out what her heroine was all about, all over again.

“How do you do that?” I can hear a lot of you asking. Just like my students have asked for years, ever sense I began teaching workshops and half-day/weekend retreats on deconstructing story and character and digging to the bar- bones truth about why they’re doing the crazy things they do in your books.

“But I’m a pantser,” others say, “and I can’t write if I have to analyze everything about my character’s motives and conflict.”

Um, okay. Don’t over-complicate your process. Got it.

I assure you, the basics of “character plotting”–brainstorming character arc for an entire novel–couldn’t be more simple. In theory. And in reality, not doing it to preserve your “creative process” is a cop out. Remember, this is something Jenni and I worked with AFTER she’d penned her rough draft–of the ENTIRE book. We were rewriting/reworking at this point. Deconstructing. Fixing the “writing by the seat of her pants” stuff.

Have you ever held a WIP in your hands and loved parts of it, but you knew it was broken and likely unsellable, and you had no idea what to do with what you’d created? Yeah–us too. Most every published author has. With most every book they’ve written. That’s why we put ourselves through the trauma of rewriting. A lot. And some of us learn along the way how to do a bit of this analysis ahead of time, in the planning phase, since that tends to save you time in the long run and make the rewriting you do even more effective once you get to it.

So. Simple. That’s our primary objective for this post. Here goes the “theory” part…

This is what my Character Chart looks like before you and a critique partner begin to deconstruct what’s going on in your WIP. (It’s a little small, so it’ll fit into the blog, but you’ll get the gist.)

character chart 600

That’s right. That’s my super-secret, crack-the-character code. Now you’re in the know. Beginning, middle and end, charted out in pretty much the simplest Microsoft Word table there is. This is a critique concept that’s simple enough for anyone to work with, right?Just replace Hero and Heroine with Protagonist and Antagonist, and you’ve got yourself a road map for breaking apart, analyzing, and improving the character (and through the character, the plot) of any novel.

Look at it this way…You need to know what a character wants, how she is behaving, what her talents and flaws are, how she reacts to her world and others in it, what’s blocking her from reaching her goal, and what internal conflict and weaknesses she’ll have to deal with and overcome by the end of the book, etc. And ALL of this has to be layered on top of your external plot. Many (including me) will teach that the character underpinnings of what you’re doing in story should DRIVE your plot.

And here’s the kicker. These character traits have to change. Over the course of the entire book. From the first page/scene/chapter/act of your novel to the last. From the beginning, through the middle, to the end of your story. And this has to be done deftly. Intentionally but seamlessly. With a light touch, so you’re not telegraphing what you’re doing and beating the reader over the head with, ” this is what I want you to see my character doing now!”

You can’t pick a character trait or conflict or flaw at the beginning of the book and paint your character that way throughout. Remember, that’s what Jenni was doing before the revelations she shared in her last post. Do that, and what you’re drawing is a one-dimensional aspect of your character, one moment in their emotional growth, and only a single glimpse of the goal, motivation and conflict I spoke about in my first post on the topic. What you DON’T have is a plot or a multi-layered character and set of character conflicts that will interest and engage your reader throughout an entire manuscript.

If you want your story to have the depth and complexity, of both character and plot, that agents and acquiring editors and readers demand, you have to plan and/or rework key elements. You have to understand and recraft them until your character is changing and growing (or backsliding) in every scene of your novel. You want to deepen the the picture of her you’ve created, so it tells a more complex story of a person changing over time while being confronted with obstacles that drive them to make choices and change even more?

Without this kind of understanding, you might have some lovely scenes and good action and spunky/endearing characters. But your reader likely won’t identify with much of it. Something will be flat. That magical thing you love about your favorite stories and writers won’t be happening in your own work and it will drive you crazy. AND once the draft’s done, it’ll take countless more time to fix the character issues in your book than it would have to straighten some of it out BEFORE you started plotting.

Remember, Jenni and I both know how frustrating this ”deeper look” can seem at first glance. It’s an amazing technique to see a writer begin to work with. But you have to really want to learn a new approach to understanding your stories, or I’m just going to drive you crazy. That’s why this particular series of craft workshops works best if taught over an entire day or weekend, while I’m working hands-on with you and your own material. You have to get your hands dirty and dig deep into what all this really means to your writing process, before it can profoundly improve your work. That takes time and a great deal of hard work. And, clearly, several weeks to blog ;o)

Now, let me get you started on the “work” part of this HoWW post. Follow the steps below as best you can. In the comments, ask whatever questions come to mind as you think all this through, and I’ll go into as much additional detail as I can there. Then next Wednesday we’ll look deeper at a specific example, once Jenni takes the ball again.

Try working from the standpoint of planning character BEFORE you plot/outline a story. Or, for those of you who’re working with an already-written project, go back and do this for the manuscript as it currently exists.

  1. Look at the character chart and work  with only one side for now.
  2. Choose only one character from your current book–the hero or heroine (protagonist or antagonist).
  3. Choose only one character trait. Ask yourself, what makes this person happy, angry, frustrated, or violent. What makes them hide. Or, what’s their goal? I could go on, but let’s stop there for now.  Pick JUST ONE of these traits. Whatever one thing you think strongly represents your character.
  4. Now, in a SINGLE sentence (notice the tiny space allowed in the chart), describe that character trait at the beginning of your book/story. Use your knowledge of their backstory, but don’t include that in the description. Know, perhaps, how this trait might trip them up in the book, but don’t include that. Think about the moment at the beginning of the book that calls the character into the flow of plot and describe how this one character trait can be used to motivate her through that scene. This is a single glimpse, one moment in time, and only a single trait.
  5. Next, in one sentence, describe that character trait at the middle of your book. What are you driving that trait towards? How will it have changed (ideally, reversed) since the beginning? How will a good trait have become a liability by now? How will the character learn to turn a liability into a asset? What new aspect of that character trait will give your character and reader a deeper, more layered look at what’s happening in your plot?
  6. Finally, in one sentence, describe that character trait at the end of your book. What has this character trait shown the character and the reader about herself and her motives and her reaction to the world? How has the character trait changed, and how is it affecting motivation and conflict differently? You’ve driven the reader here from the beginning and middle of the book. Even at the end of the story, you have to draw a character as ever-changing and layered and reacting and real. This is the pay off. What is your overall intention for this character trait, so it’s fully evolved and fleshed out BEFORE you plot how you’re going to get the character and story to this point?

Again, it’s a simple concept. A simple chart. Character. Beginning, middle, and end.

But is it really that simple, to understand your intentions for a character at the key turning points in your book, so you can explain in a single sentence why you’re writing the pages and scenes and chapters and acts that you are? Can you really narrow your focus down to a single character trait and think it through for the entire novel, without discussing plot or adding another characteristic, or wanting to actually write or rewrite a scene or turning point? Can you be that intentional about what you’re using your characters for in your stories?

And, FYI, to circle back to what started Jenn and I thinking about doing HoWW. If you’ve followed some of the “quick” craft tips that are out there in social media–THIS is the fullproof way to write a perfect character, the perfect plot, the perfect opening, the perfect ending, etc. to get an agent/editor/reader to LOVE your book and offer you the contract of your dreams–only to discover that “quick” doesn’t get the job done after you write past the first ten pages of your book, or the first chapter, or the first half of the story… You’re starting to realize that many of the “I’ve got the answer for you!” experts are selling their ability to give advice, not their experience in doing the work you have to do in your book. It takes a writer to know how to do that.

Hard work, writing and rewriting and rewriting some more until we understand the complexity of novel development, is How We Write. It’s how we critique with each other to find that new truth that takes a story to another level. It’s how this works. There are no shortcuts, no matter how sparkly and breezy someone makes the easy path seem. Yeah, I’m a motivational writing coach, too ;o) But I also believe in only teaching what you know–and this is what I know. Plus, I don’t shy away from handing out a dose of tough love when it’s needed most.

Take your time with this chart. I know it’s a lot to take in at once. Give it shot, let us know in the comments how it comes out, ask questions and vent frustration ;o) I’ll check back in regularly.

Then come back next Wednesday for some specific examples of how Jenni and I applied this method to her work!

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14 Responses to “How We Write Wednesdays: Character Chart Time!”

  1. The first time I saw that chart I wanted to scream. Not because I thought it wouldn’t help me, but because I knew the work that was in front of me. When you know there is something that is wrong with character, often it is an easy fix. The problem is finding the right mixture of changes to make it an “easy” fix in the re-writing process. This chart really helps to develop characters and your plot. I now never leave home without it!

  2. Awesome post as always. Since my power keeps going on and off, I have copied and pasted this and will work on it with my new WIP old school style (pen and paper). If I have any questions, I’ll definitely head over. Seriously can’t wait for your talks at DFW Conference at the end of the month. Thanks for this series of posts :-)

  3. Meg M says:

    LOVE THE CHART!! Thanks so much for the tips!


  4. Deb Diez says:

    I can’t wait for the workshop in CNYRW mini-con. And Love the Chart. I’m going to try it. Thanks, nothing in life is worth having if you don’t have to put a little bit of love, sweat and tears into it.

  5. Hi, Anna. Hi, Jenn. I’m not a chart person, but this sounds a must try. I’m panster and I’m at point in my novel I know my heroine must change. I’m going to use this to fiqure what her next steps will be.


  6. Anna says:

    Thanks for giving this a shot, everyone. We had tons of hits on the post yesterday, even if no one’s ready to share their work with the class yet ;o)

    I know it’s a lot. Like I said, take your time. Then let us know how it goes.

    You have to be patient with yourself and your characters, while you work this stuff out. You’re looking deeper than you have before. You’re mining for that meaning that will make your story and plot shine. That might take you or your critique group several passes through the story to figure out. It often does, when I work on someone’s characters at one of my workshops.

    It’s a discovery exercise.

    Don’t forget–next Wednesday Jenn will be sharing what we discovered about her spunky heorine and why she’ll be doing the things she’ll be doing throughout her book!

  7. Joy Held says:

    Great idea! Can’t wait to get my characters in line. They behave so badly!

  8. I’m with Autumn but can truly see the value of this. Thanks so much for all the time you put into helping the rest of us move along in this journey. This information is of tremendous value.

    Joanna Aislinn
    Dream. Believe. Strive. Achieve!
    The Wild Rose Press

  9. Christine says:

    Hi Anna: I like this chart. I am going to use it for a revision I’m working on right now–wish I’d seen this earlier!! I have a few questions–hope it is not too late to ask–do you focus on every trait? Every element? Or the major flaws/strengths? And do you find that your characters tend to have similar issues from book to new book? Reflect the same theme?


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