How We Write: Character Is Just The Beginning

We’ve talked a little about analyzing story, a lot about what character growth means, and even more about how to figure out why your characters are doing what they do in key places in your story. So, is that it? You know me better than that. Let’s take a closer look at Jenni’s example from last week’s HoWW Post, think this through a little more, then set things up for a whole new topic starting next week. One of Jenni’s favorite things this time–plot.

But don’t think you ‘ve seen the last of this lovely planning document. It’ll be back sooner than you might expect, especially since we’ve established that character is plot is character is plot. And those of you coming to hear me teach at the  DFWCon this month and the Central New York Writers Minicon  in March, we’ll play with it even more ;o) 


Okay, let’s bullet point some cool features about this type of character analysis that we’d love to get you excited about (I love bullet points, so for those of you who dug the bullets Jenni uses above, you’re my kind of detail freaks):

  • Think critique group–you know, the kind of thing Jenni and I were doing when I first showed it to her. Think about the type of digging deeper conversations you’ll have with those helping you with your own stories, with this as a starting point to visualize evolving components of your novel.
  • For the first row in Jenni’s table, picture her continuing the charting, choosing a similar characteristic for Jacob that either plays against or ramps up what Katie’s working on. She could use (consider that a dare, Jenn) the same row to see where Jacob’s complementary/conflicting characteristic would be at the beginning, middle and end of the story.
  • Once that’s done, she’d have a pretty nifty device to compare the two lead characters’ growth in each key phase of the book. She’d be able to just look at the beginning, and nothing else, and mine deeper into these characters to get the most she could out of their relationship/conflict/growth (together and separate).
  • Think about this sort of thing when you start deciding WHAT to analyze in each row. Keep each row’s focus as simple as possible–I promise you, this will add to the complexity of your analysis.

Beyond planning the inner workings of two different characters’ traits, let’s talk revision.Yes. Revision (which is a totally different series of Howw posts and a topic I often spend at least a day discussing with groups). We’ll come back to rewriting later, but here are some things to mull over in the mean time:

  • Let’s say you’ve done your planning, whatever you’re comfortable with. You’ve used this chart, however in-depth you could before you started writing, so you had some idea of where your characters were going before you started drafting.
  • Now you’re done with at least a part of your draft, say the first half of the book. You’ve kept drafting like I recommend, rather than stopping and starting over and over, which would ruin your momentum and rob you of the creative surprises that drafting can bring. Now, it’s time to take stock. Look! You have a detailed document of what you intended to do with your characters at the beginning.
  • My recommendation–take a fresh copy of this chart and work through your draft, recording what you ACTUALLY did with your characters in the beginning and middle of the book (since we’re assuming that’s where you’ve stopped). Compare the new chart to what you started with. How are you liking the result? Are there things you need to tweak to keep closer to your original intent? Are there things you forgot and can work in now? Are there things you’ve done that fit your characters better, that nonetheless mean you have to rethink your plans for the end of the book (as charted in your original planning document)?
  • This is a great technique for keeping track of your plans, your drafting, and your revision of character-specific traits. Remember–we’re talking character, apart from plot. We’ll get to the plot, so stick around. But this very simple chart can help you hone your characters, focus on them alone, which, I promise you, will add depth and layering and complexity like you wouldn’t believe to the rest of your novel.

There. Enough about character for now, because I know your brains are beginning to ooze out of your ears again, and I promised myself to keep this post shorter than my last HoWW “character” tomb.

Ask any final questions you have, leave any comments, chat amongst yourself. Keep the conversation going for as long as you like, and Jenni and I will do our best to keep up.

Now let’s talk about how you could use this chart to PLOT ;o)

Just kidding, even though you absolutely can, and I’m going to be talking about that before too long. So don’t even think of hiding…

You’ve all guessed by now that I approach story through character first. Jenni, you won’t be surprised to learn, comes at story initially through plot. When we critique, these two opposing views complement and infuriate and challenge us. But that’s how we work best. That’s how we write, when we’re lucky enough to be able to be creative together. That’s the kind of deep work that makes what we do better.

I can’t tell you how exciting I am to have Jenni kick off our HoWW plotting section next Wednesday. Even though it means sharing one of her critiques of my work–which of course amounted to, “Lovely characters, but what the hell is going on in the plot???”

Come back next week for the carnage. You don’t want to miss a moment of the drama!

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5 Responses to “How We Write: Character Is Just The Beginning”

  1. Still loving this series! I have my excel spreadsheet opened on my computer with all the notes and plan on digging in with all the character analysis. Thanks for this tool and I look forward to learning how to use it even more at the conference.

  2. Challenge accepted and completed. Actually, I did that and then I did them together…that was just way to much fun to write.

    Anna won’t be so excited when I tell her to break out the conflict box and do not just for hero/heroine but for protag/antag and then force her to look at the external hot spots so that her characters are more than just lovely people…she’s going to break out the killer boots again, I just know it.

  3. Phil says:

    Awesome post! This is just the sort of thinking I’ve been talking about in my posts. Excellent analysis.

  4. Mary Preston says:

    I am SO impressed with how organised.

  5. How We Write: Character Is Just The Beginning says:

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