Today’s blog post is late because I ended up waking up and getting—gasp—right to work. For reasons that will be detailed in another post somewhere down the way, I am totally surprised and also totally not surprised to find my heretofore empty plate filled to overflowing with deadlines.
So! Let’s get right to it, shall we? Because some of you are asking me about my process, I figured I’d use that as this week’s You Better Work Monday.
Ready? Then you know what’s next…
Author, You Better Work
In previous posts somewhere that I am too lazy and/or burned out from working out to take the time to find, I mentioned Cathy Yardley’s Rock Your Plot. Up until just recently, I had a homebrew way of developing my characters, and it was light on the introductory work.
What I’ve done is taken elements of Cathy’s prep work, bits of what Cherry Adair taught me, bits of what I developed on my own, wrapped them all together, cut out the bits that didn’t work, and developed a kind of mish-mash that works exactly the way I want it to.
What I learned, first and foremost, is that I can’t dodge the prep work. Not if I want a clear understanding of who my characters are and what they want. I write too fast and too cleanly to mess around with a thousand revisions, and though I’d love to be like the really great authors—the ones who don’t outline or do much exploratory work because they think it ruins some of the exploration for them—I’m not that gifted.
Like many of us, I have to work a whole other rhythm to tease out what I need.
There are four things I must have before I start anything else on a project. In no particular order, they are:
- Birthday/Astrology Sign
- Character Traits
Name and picture are self-explanatory. I can’t start until I have the perfect name; it’s something about the way I link up personalities to names. Once I’ve used one, I’m extremely loathe to use it again.
As for a picture, it’s a rare case when anyone but me sees it. Sometimes, I won’t know what hair or eye color I’m looking for until I see it. Sometimes, it’s all in a specific expression, an intensity, a smile. I comb places like Pinterest or Model Mayhem for good pictures, and I save them to a file every time I find one. This gives me a pretty solid bunch of photos to rifle through when I need one.
I also don’t just collect the hot ones. I never know when I’m going to need a guy whose features are strange and compelling, or a woman who isn’t pretty but has that something-something that translates into a kinetic force of personality.
Once I have those two, I see to the rest.
It’s All in the Stars
I happen to be a believer in astrological signs. As a Virgo/Libra paired with an Aries, I’d have to be blind, deaf and dumb as a post not to see all the many and varied ways we aren’t compatible. (Ah, the power of the love…)
However, you don’t have to be. What this becomes, then, is a tool, rather than a belief system.
Let’s use Naomi West from Lure of the Wicked, the second in the Dark Mission series.
I decided, using a random number generator, that her birthday was January 15th. That’s right, our aggressive missionary was going to be an Aquarius. “But why should that matter?” you ask, clearly disbelieving. It matters, delicious one, for this reason:
Every astrological sign as a list of adjectives and traits that they like and are, and don’t like.
Cherry Adair put it best when she said, “Pick ones that describe the sign. Decide if your character is like that. If she isn’t, then you need to decide why.” Boom. Immediate character background hints.
For example, I’m a Virgo/Libra, born on the cusp. Both Virgos and Libras don’t like clutter, they tend to be neat. I, however, am the farthest thing from neat and organized. Why? Because my mother was a neatfreak, and one too many episodes that ended with me losing my stuff—or forced to put it all away from a pile in the middle of the floor—pretty much guaranteed that I’d go the exact opposite way.
If we were writing me, we’d jot that note down as “mother issues”. Because, let’s face it, everything is bigger when writing about it.
Aquarius folk tend to treat obstacles like things to saunter around and avoid. (Check!…Waste energy on a problem? Pfft.) They tend to want to make the world better. (Check!—even if she’s doing it one dead witch at a time.) They are good with social networks and tend to have a lot of contacts and friend. (Erm… No. Why not? Because the people she trusted most abandoned her. Boom. Backstory.)
You see what I’m doing?
A google search on any of these can help you find astrological traits, but you can also pick up a copy of Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs. Although the language is a little dated, the concepts are sound, and you can ignore all that fluff about ladies doing what they can to snag a man. It was written in the ’70s.
Pick a Few: Character Traits
The last thing I do is pick four traits that describe or suit the character best. Cherry also taught me this, and it’s something I write down and keep close at hand as I plot.
These traits don’t have to be adjectives. For example, you could write down a trait that says “stubborn”. It’s perfectly justifiable—if a little too easy. That’s an adjective. She is stubborn.
You could also have a trait that says “cop”. That’s it. Just cop. Why is that legit?
Because cops will act and react to different circumstances differently than everybody else. If I write down “cop”, that tells me immediately how quickly, efficiently, and instinctually a character will react to a sudden gunshot, for example. Or how he or she will process information. How they’ll deal with an aggressive person, or a person who needs help. Are they likely to condone breaking the law? No, there’ll be all kinds of pathos if it comes up.
That single trait defines that character from top to bottom.
You need four of these. because, after all, even a cop has other things that shape him. A one-trick pony is about as fun as gnawing on a cardboard cutout—and trust me, about the third time you get papercuts on your gums, you stop thinking it’s fun.
Let’s go back to Naomi. Her four traits are:
- “scared of intimacy” (a fact she’d rather die than ever admit, but which explains most of her choices regarding the hero),
- “trust issues” (colored by her background, and also explains every decision she ever makes),
- “thorough” (which can also double as stubborn because she refuses to leave a job half-assed, no matter the toll it takes on her), and
- “psychological breakdown” (which fills in everything else).
Every decision, every choice, every reaction, everything Naomi does should be colored by one or more of these. Either it holds her back, or it pushes her forward. Either she makes the deliberate choice to overcome, or to wallow. If Phin, our dashing hero, wants to get closer, Naomi’s reactions are colored by “scared of intimacy”, and of course “trust issues” as she falls for him. Then again, “thorough” also comes into play, because his facility is under investigation by the Mission. She can’t leave the job undone, no matter how badly it’s affecting her calm.
It’s a labyrinthine puzzle, if you get too sucked into the intricate details, so for now, just make those traits and make sure that you are choosing the phrase or word that most encapsulates what you’re trying to convey. The word needs to trigger understanding in you, so that when you see the word “cop”, you can think of all the ways your hero/ine is going to handle X, Y and Z. All those delicious problems you foist on their laps.
Once they’re written down and settled on, you’ll find they naturally enter into your plot choices, and are there primarily for a reminder if you get stuck.
Naomi’s template looked like this:
You can use whatever format you like. This is the one I appropriated from Cherry’s teachings, and now always fill it out and print it off. It gets pinned to my wall or plot board, wherever I can see it, for quick referencing later.
Next week, we’ll start working into GMC. Not the car. No car for you. It stands for Goal, Motivation, and Conflict.
Don’t worry, it’s not nearly as tough as it sounds.
Your homework, if you choose to accept it, is to go and get a copy of Cathy’s Rock Your Plot. At $2.99, it’s well worth the price, and I will not be transcribing the contents for you. However, it really is an integral part of my plot-making process, so if you’re really interested in how to tighten up those plots, you’ll take the dive.
While you can read it all—I found parts of it super helpful, most of it encouraging, and bits of it completely not my jam—we’ll be looking at the chapters on GMC specifically, and later on, at Plot Points.
In the meantime, consider compiling a character template for your characters. Protagonist(s), Antagonist (because villains have depth, too!), and any Supporting Cast that are more involved than your average walk-on scenes.
If you have any questions, feel confused or unsure, send me an email or leave a comment. I’ll answer them in the next blog posts, here in the comments if it fits, and in other ways.
Last, and Not Least
Go have a glass of something delicious. Always reward yourself for a hard day’s work.