Writing my first published novel, Destiny of Angels, I took no chances. Every character in the book was planned and thoroughly researched, neatly filed with a photograph of how I envisaged the character…and then I started writing.
Why was I so surprised that my characters had minds of their own? Why did I not anticipate that the character traits I’d landed them with weren’t necessarily the ones that fitted them best? Some of the planning was useful, but other parts I ended up changing to create the well rounded, believable characters I needed for my novel. So, how much character planning do you need? How much detail is necessary when writing fiction?
These are the details I begin with. You can always add to your characters as the book progresses and you get to know them even better:
1 Visual appearance
I’m a visual reader and writer, so height, shape, hair and eye colour help me ‘see’ my characters. Add to this complexion and skin tone, and what their hands are like. Hands can tell you a lot about a person.
2 Strongest personality traits
What’s the one thing about your character that no one can miss?
3 Weakest personality traits
What’s the one thing about your character that they may want to hide or feel guilty about?
4 Possession and/or person
What possession or person does your character value most?
5 Favourite food
Food choices tell a lot about a person, and their feelings towards the planet and their environment.
6 What stands in your character’s way?
We’re all good at putting barriers up, hijacking our own happiness with definitions (‘I’m too old to do that’) and other similar roadblocks (‘I would like to visit Crete but…) Finding out what stops your character from doing or being something or someone is a great way to get to know them.
And that’s it. There’s background, of course, childhood and the life journey they’ve already walked, but you don’t need it all detailed before you begin, maybe just an inkling of where they’ve recently been.
Later, you can ask the character to talk about themselves. Here’s Lizzie Martin, the main character in the first Wendy Woo Witch Lit series:
Hi, I’m Lizzie and I’m a witch. Not that I wear a pointy hat and travel to work on a broomstick. In fact, unless you get to know me well, you would never know, but I live my life following the Sacred Wheel of the Year and use magic in my daily life. I might draw a single card from my Tarot pack, set a candle spell working or consult with Cerridwen and her cauldron, but even if my focus is not on a magical act or ritual, the Wheel turns and I move with it.
I was a ‘ginger’ at school but if you’re going to label me, I’d prefer redhead. I love wearing bright clothes that compliment rather than clash. Paisley, velvet and Indian fabrics are my favourite, swathing my body in colour and light. I’ve never felt the need to show off my figure so I let my clothes do the talking. I rarely have to do more than smile, which I prefer. I learned to be quiet at an early age while my parents shouted and argued.
I’m not a great one for shouting. At our old house, I avoided the neighbourhood squabbles and gossip, preferring peace to provocation. I got on well with everyone but had no particular friends. My fault? Probably but I’m a private person and I worry about sharing too much of myself with strangers. At our new house, it’s different. Mr Brody is our next door neighbour, his house adjoins ours, so we met on the day Rowan and I moved in. I was worried about Rowan’s music disturbing him and he was embarrassed that his TV would annoy us!
Louise and I are friends, good ones I hope. She’s one of the security guards in the building where I work. She’s raven haired and vivacious, completely different from me, but they say opposites attract. She’s kind, that’s why I like her.
With Josh, my ex-husband, out of my life, Rowan is my family. My father died when I was young. He is my first thought on waking, while my mother and I have always struggled to form any kind of relationship. Affectionate isn’t a word I use to describe her. Some days, I don’t think she cares about me at all, but she’s Rowan’s Granny, so I do the best I can. Marsha, on the other hand, Josh’s mum is a sweetheart. She continues to treat me as family, phoning for advice about her dreams and welcoming Rowan to her villa in Spain every year.
‘Call yourself a witch! Where’s the magic?’ I hear you ask. At the bottom of my garden is a little wooden shed that I call Sanctuary. Rowan calls it my ‘Mum cave’. Within its warm and welcoming walls, I draw and paint and surround myself with magic.
The six points work for me, but if you want a more expansive list for a character profile, pop back next week and I’ll post one up for you.