Today I decided to share one of my dirty little secrets with all of you. It’s how I come up with the lead roles for my stories (at least for the long ones that are turning into novels and novel series). It’s not some big long complicated process for me. I don’t know how long it usually takes authors to get a good idea of who their main characters are, but for me it’s pretty quick. And as weird as it may sound, it doesn’t start with writing at all.
I’m an artist at heart. Yes, I love writing, and I will always write even if it’s just for myself, but my urge to create is shared with my visual art. Drawing, painting, doodling, whatever. So for me, the easiest way to get to known my characters is to draw them. For me it’s simple. I put a blank piece of paper on the table in front of me and stare at it until it magically becomes a masterpiece. Or not. We all know it doesn’t really happen that way. Sometimes that masterpiece take 20 or more hours to make happen, complete with cursing, growling, head scratching, broken pencils, paint everywhere (and I do mean everywhere), and a whole lot of frustration. When it’s done, I can sit back and take a good look at the person who will take center stage in my story, even if they aren’t the main focus.
For me, I feel like I know my characters better when I can see them in front of me rather than through the descriptions of the narrative. Sure, maybe you can’t tell that the character is deathly afraid of snakes just by looking at their picture, but if I’ve done my job right, I can tell what kind of person they are. That one up there in the banner, that’s Julian. You’ll see a lot of him in this blog because he is the main focus of one of the books I’m working on, as well as a main supporting character in the other one. I’ve drawn him countless times over the years, and I knew his personality perfectly by the time it came to writing him. I knew how he would react to certain situations, I knew what he likes and dislikes, and now when I write him, I can picture perfectly in my head what the scene looks like.
This is what the first sketch of him looks like. Well, the first one that’s done more realistically than the other random anime doodles of him.
Some of you may be saying “well if you’re good at writing, your readers should be able to picture the scene perfectly when they read it, anyway.” Well I shake my head at you. This is my preference, dammit, and not a set in stone way of doing it! Maybe it’s because I grew up reading comic books just as often as I read novels, but it’s probably just because I’ve been drawing character sketches since I was ten years old and that’s just something I enjoy doing. Either way, this is how most of my conceptualizing happens.
BUT… once I’m done drawing a new person, angel, demon, cat, whatever, I still sit down and write up a quick note sheet with the basics. Age, full name if necessary, eye colour, hair colour, height, body type and build, hobbies, special abilities, species, it all gets jotted down on a sheet of paper in one of my growing number of notebooks so that it’s on hand whenever I need it.
Sometimes I’ll write a scene or two with that character to feel them out and decide if there is anything I need to change about them before moving forward, but maybe that’s overkill. I just like to know my characters inside and out so that I’m not stuck wondering things like whether they would roll their eyes at someone’s joke or roll around on the floor laughing or maybe even burst into a fit of rage at how preposterous the punchline is and then proceed to annihilate the entire room full of people with their magic fairy dust that melts the flesh from your bones. Okay, maybe not that, but do you see where I’m going with this?
The point is, how I figure my people out is probably totally different from how you do it. Not to say you shouldn’t try it my way, because it is definitely fun (at least when it works out the way you want it), but you should do it your way. I find my way easiest for me, but I’m sure a lot of other people would think I’m insane for doing it the way I do – especially if you aren’t the artsy type.
For me, I like to see the scene drawn out in front of me if I have the option. And it works out well if I need a few days away from writing, because I can still be focused on my story, but in a completely different way than if I was to force myself to write when I’m not motivated to do so. Trust me, there are plenty of days when drawing is definitely the better option for me between the two.
How do you plan out your characters? Do you go into detail about their past, or do you stick to the basics and let the character reveal themselves as the story progresses so that you don’t even know what’s going to happen? Feel free to let me know in the comments, I love hearing how other authors go about planning their work. Also, just to see how well I did my job (probably not well at all, but whatever), what type of impression do you get from that character sketch above? What kind of person do you think he is?
(If you’re interested in seeing the other art I do, you can find some on my art blog.)