Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Really, this was just an excuse for a toy...

It's not really a secret that I am not a character-driven writer. When I sit down to write, the story, ideas, and setting come to me before the characters do. Steph is the opposite. When she sits down, it's the characters that come to her first and foremost, and she figures out the story afterwards.

Now, I don't think it matters which way around you come up with stuff. Characters, story, setting, idea, whatever. What does matter is that you figure out all the aspects sooner rather than later.

In some previous books, I haven't really figured out the characters early enough, and that's meant an awful lot of difficult rewriting later on.

So, for the last novel I decided to turn things upside down and figure out the characters right from the beginning.

After the necessary brainstorming and the exploratory writing that I always do (normally 10 - 15k of 'opening', to figure out the style, who needs to be involved, and to know the world, and, well, just because I can), I bought a giant whiteboard, wasted a good day attaching it to the wall (no DIY is not my strength...), and then started figuring everything out, starting with the characters.


First up, I drew a grid with the characters across the top and the following five questions down the side that I had to answer for every single character who has any kind of role in the book:

1. What do they want and what do they desperately need? (Generally, these things should be in opposition; where they are massively in opposition, I write INTERNAL CONFLICT, to remind myself how important it is to their story. I should probably write it for every character.)

2. What are they doing to get it?

3. What is stopping them from getting it?

4. What do they stand to lose if they don't get it?

5. Where do they end up?

It doesn't take long before the conflicts between the characters start to emerge. In my old way of writing, these conflicts didn't always become apparent until I'd written a lot of the book, causing lots of rewriting and frustration.

After I'd come up with these character sheets, which basically show the arc of each character over the entire book, and added any specific background or character traits the individual characters needed, I started to break it down.

The Acts

I tend to write three-act books, but obviously they don't have to be. After the character sheets I drew another grid, this time with 'Opening', 'End of Act 1', 'End of Act 2', and 'End of Act 3' across the top, and each character name down the side, along with a general 'What is happening?' section.

This basically allowed me to outline the overall plot AND the arcs of each character over each of the three acts.

After that (...) I went back in and broke it down further into 'sequences'. These are groups of scenes or chapters. I figure about 4 - 7 scenes make a sequence (although that just happens to meet my style; none of this is rules). For every sequence, for each of the major characters (who appeared in that sequence) I wrote down the starting and ending point, and the change that had occurred for them.

Later in the process I did a similar thing for each individual scene.

Now, some of you are probably thinking I'm crazy at this point. I know a lot of people just write from beginning to end without any of this, and I used to, but this is what worked for me.

The point is not that you have to outline, or that the outline you come up with this way is in any way set in stone, or that the characters have to stay the way you originally conceive them.

But if you find that your stories tend to be driven rather too much by events and the characters just chase the events around, then this can be a pretty useful technique.

I know I'm not going to have any trouble coming up with the plot, the ideas, or the setting for a story. But using this technique, I've made myself know how the characters would interact before I've even set them off running, and I discovered some pretty neat subplots I would otherwise have had to lever in at a later point.

So, does anyone else do anything like this? And do you have a giant whiteboard to do it on? And do you only do it this way because once you'd bought a giant whiteboard, you have to do something with it...?

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