A poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage... - Macbeth
This week, we're going to start into the real nuts and bolts of my writing process. If you are an aspiring writer or even an already accomplished one, I want to start sharing with you the thoughts and practices that shape my own writing habits. So let's start with a little pop quiz to open up the discussion? You have reached that moment where the seat of your pants is firmly applied to the seat of a chair and before you is a pencil and your favorite notepad ( you know, the one you bought expressly to write your novel in but have been terrified to put anything in until now). You know you want to write the next great dystopian teen novel that will have the movie studios banging on your door, right? So what is the most important element that you need to have next? A killer plot line? A sinister twist that no one will ever see coming? A magic system and dynamic fantasy world with a detailed socioeconomic structure and geopolitical factions vying for control? Hmmm, maybe later.
What we need right now are characters.
No matter what your genre or setting, the single force that drives a good novel are the vibrant and believable characters who live and breathe in your mind. What makes a story memorable is not the events that occurred but the people who experienced them. It's Katniss and Peeta. It's Harry, Ron, and Hermione. It's Luke, Leia, and Darth Vader. And I can promise that each one of you reading this had a moment of recognition with at least one of these groups without needing the story of which they are a part of even mentioned. That is the power that I am talking about.
My new writing projects never begin with plot details beyond maybe more than a flash of a scene in my head. Still shots for a storyboard that may hint at some major event or consequence that I know will end up as a significant moment at some point in the narrative. But who is that in the shadows with their hands raised to the heavens?
If you have read the Witches of Pioneer Vale tab on my website (go ahead, I'll wait....) you will see that Anne-Marie Carmichael, the series namesake, came about from playing a game that turned into an idea for a story. As I was playing this pixelated protector, the background began falling into place. I knew that she had learned magic by chance. I knew that she would be watching the passing generations of her family from the spooky woods beside Carmichael Farms. I knew that she was a compassionate but fierce woman long before I ever envisioned that demonic wolf and the legacy of the Firstborn.
You see, the plot is what happens TO the characters we create and how they handle the adversities that we create for them. It is our responsibility to know every little quirk, detail, and idiosyncrasy that they may have, but more than that, we have to be able to share that with our readers so that our characters leap off the page. When we do our jobs as authors, our audience can feel what our characters feel. They laugh at the jokes. They cry at the losses. They clench their fists when the big battle scene arrives. All because they have seen into the souls of our protagonists.
So, where do we begin then? The first thing you need to do is start out with the basic details you can think of for your character. Start with a physical description. You have to know how they look after all. Once you have done that, however, the fun begins and we get to build them a personality. Ask yourself tons of questions about what they are like. An easy Google search can find you all sorts of templates and questionnaires that can help you fill in all the details. What are their favorite foods and music? Are they whimsical or serious. What sort of relationships do they have with their family and neighbors? The list goes on and on, but the end goal is for you as the author to know every last detail about the characters you create. A lot of these may never make it into the story, but just the sake of you knowing these traits will help you write a more believable character.
Here's another Pioneer Vale example. The first time that Anne-Marie takes her new student Angelica into the extra- dimensional lab and library, one of the first things she does is hand Angelica a seemingly blank book. She tells Angelica to think of any book she can and then open the cover. The teenager does this and her first two tests come up with Macbeth and A Tale of Two Cities, letting the reader know that Angelica is a well read student. A subsequent test shows The Joy Of Cooking, suggesting that Angelica has spent time helping her mother in the kitchen back on their farm. One final test yields Thieves' Honor, which probably lends more insight into the author than the characters to be honest.
In the same scene Anne-Marie pulls a jar from a shelf of traditional witches ingredients and pops something into her mouth. Before Angelica can get violently ill, she reveals that it was actually candy and that she learned long ago that the disgusting label kept others from raiding her supply. More importantly, it shows not only a treat that our witch has come to enjoy, but that she has a wicked sense of humor as well.
So fill in your details. Know little bits of history from every character you bring into the picture. If your characters lack relatable qualities, they will seem flat, and then no turn of events will be able to bring life back into them. Make them emotional. Make them vibrant. Make them the Girl or Guy Next Door, but above all else do this one thing. Make them memorable.
See you next class.