Monday, June 1, 2020

Getting to Know All About you

Q: Do you keep a “bible” for your series characters and stories? If so, what does it look like? What does it contain? Do you use a specific program or just Word or Excel files? What do you put in it, how detailed are you?

-from Susan

No, I don’t keep a record as extensive or authoritative as the term “bible” might imply. When I’m writing a book, I do keep a simple file of the names I’ve given characters, and their titles or company names since those determine their roles in the story. The main characters I know, but the secondary or passing characters aren’t as fully formed in my head, and I might be tempted to guess as I go along without the simple Word doc that I keep on the desktop for easy checking. 

With a series, I get to know my characters better as the story develops. It helps me to have a mental acquaintance with the lead characters before I write. I even occasionally think of an actor or actress whose looks I can visualize as like my characters’ face. I don’t need to think out in advance, as one writing teacher suggested in a class I once took, what food they like, what colors they prefer, etc. What I do need to become familiar with is how they will react in a situation, where their sympathies will lie, what their emotional and intellectual blind spots are. Those will drive plot, no matter what color shirts they’re wearing. And, while I know this may sound strange if you’re not already a seasoned writer, a lot of this they will tell me.

For my French series, I modeled the lead characters on two real friends, and some secondary characters on people I had met, of course stretched and reshaped into totally fictional inventions. That made not jut the characterizations, but the actions and reactions of the people in my little village easy to write, no reminder document needed.

I’m now writing a standalone with characters and a setting new to me. So, not only is my character name list longer, but I’m working hard to give them names that will help me get to know them better.  Because it’s set in the 1940s, I researched popular names for ones that resonate with the times and that call to mind a face, perhaps a character in a 1940s film. It was before my time, so I am dependent to a great extent on the arts of the 1940s for clues of all kinds. It’s kind of fun to be wandering around in the past, peeking into unfamiliar rooms!

For anyone just starting out, the core advice is your characters have to behave in a consistent way, based on their beliefs, upbringing, circumstances in life, and individual quirks. If a getting-to-know-you document and written description helps you get to that place, I hope you will use it so that when I read your published book I will buy into the story you have written for them.


Paul D. Marks said...

Susan, I think a lot of teachers tell us we should make lists of this or that, like what food a character likes, favorite colors, etc. I always think that's a good idea but I learn from my characters as I go along. So I might have some basic ideas in my head but I rarely write them down anymore, at least not until after the fact -- after it's already in a manuscript. But even then I really don't. Sometimes I wish I did. It would make things easier.

Susan C Shea said...

Agree, Paul. If I assert that my character will like pizza more than coq au vin before I start writing, I still may not understand why she does. And then she turns out to love something else that I only realize is a better fit 100 pages into her story!