I have done most of the things in my life because of stories. I went to film school to tell stories, I take photos and write to tell stories. I also read, watch movies, and play video games to enjoy stories told in different mediums! So when I set out to write my novels, I of course wanted to tell a complete story, but what are stories without extraordinary characters?
All writers have different approaches to writing. There are “seat of your pants”, “architects”, “gardeners”, “plotters”. For me personally, I would like to think I’m more of a gardener where I tend to my story daily and watch it grow naturally instead of forcing it or smothering it. I don’t plot out my entire story start to finish, but what I do outline meticulously are my characters. Here is my process pre-long form writing, however it certainly continues well after I’ve started:
Step One: Characteristics and Backstory
Before I do anything, I write out every single detail about my character. I use 32 points which include the basics like name, age, height, hair color, etc. but also deeper aspects like speaking style, fondest memory, phobias, favorite clothing, etc. It may not seem it at first but they are super important and they all contribute to what makes a person, any person, unique and it will make your characters believable, relatable, and extraordinary.
These are also indirect ways of developing backstory. Instead of just having a section labeled “Backstory”, you can answer questions such as “What is their fondest childhood memory?”, “What is the worst thing that ever happened to this character?”, and “Have they ever been in love?”.
Step Two: The Big Three
I don’t remember where I heard it called “The Big Three”, but this is what I have always called it! These are some of the most important pieces of info for your character:
- What does your character want more than anything?
- What do they need to grow?
- What internal problems (flaws) and external problems (obstacles)?
I won’t go into it, but it is also important to distinguish your characters WANT and NEED, because what your characters needs to grow may not always be what they want! Here is a resource for that.
In truth it’s these factors that drive and define your character above all else and helps them move through the story and CHANGE, which brings me to Step 3!
Step Three: Their Journey(s)
Joseph Campbell’s Hero Journey is something I have studied for a long time, reading example after example from popular movies; Frodo in Lord of the Rings, Neo in The Matrix, Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. Characters that go from the Known World into the Unknown, and tested and changed, and go full circle having found maybe not what they want but what they need, are the ones we remember and love.
Here is a link to a great explanation of The Hero’s Journey, I won’t start explaining it as it can get complicated…the good kind! However, I recently discovered a simplified, somewhat updated version that Dan Harmon, the writer and creator of Rick & Morty, uses and I love it so much more!
He calls it the Story Circle and even though it is the same journey of a hero, it’s worded differently and for whatever reason it just clicked better in my brain and I was able to finalize all of my characters steps. For example, he explains “NEED” as “something isn’t quite right”, and I loved that because it really made me think about how I could disrupt my characters in the “Known World” so much that it would make them leave into the “Unknown World” to search for what they want and discover what they need.
At the bottom of this page that explains The Story Circle, there is a way to download a blank worksheet with black story circles. I printed out one for each character and I completed each of their Story Circles. I can’t begin to explain how much it helped me. Not to mention, it’s actually really fun to outline in a simple, concise way the story of each character start to finish.
Step Four: Vision boarding (a.k.a pinning on Pinterest)
I greatly enjoy doing this because it helps me visualize the smallest of details that you wouldn’t think are necessary but are highly welcome in stories. I love reading description of people or places and the author is able to describe the texture of their hair or the shape of their face and I can picture them perfectly in my head. I struggle with describing defining features of characters that I have a solid picture of in my head sometimes and doing it accurately so that 1. readers see the same character that I am seeing and 2. every character is unique, different and not necessarily “ideal”…I admit, I have a tendency to make all of my characters very attractive right off the bat! Maybe that’s okay, but it’s something that I am trying to avoid.
The above board I did for a character named Nuriel and yes, she obviously has red hair, but I also add pictures that have a certain presence or feeling, or maybe a picture that has the lips I want Nuriel to have and another with the nose I see her having. It helps me paint a super clear image in my head of what she looks like!
Step Five: WRITE!
These aren’t definitive steps, and they certainly don’t each need to be completed fully before diving into writing. I still add to my Pinterest Board while I’m writing, and I love to keep it open when I’m writing about a certain character or place. I also still go back to my character description and Story Circle Outlines months later and add or change things that may have developed while I was writing. I will say that I find writing so much easier and more enjoying when I have these reference points laid out for myself!