We’ve heard from Jenna that you should write honestly. We’ve also heard from Codie that you should find that sweet middle spot between planning and over-planning. I think both staff members gave great advice. Sometimes you can’t predict your brilliant moments. Sometimes your honesty creates more humor or pain or heartbreak than any fictive plot could ever hope to surpass. And sometimes being (slightly) meticulous is the only way to get anything accomplished.
So, if you listen to Jenna and Codie, you’ve got your plot covered: you’re going to write your truth and you’re going to semi-plan. (Phew—glad we figured that out!) But what about your characters? Do you wing it or do you write out their life story before you write one word? Like Codie said, I don’t think there’s one clear-cut answer or plan of attack. Some folks go above and beyond to detail their characters with birthdays and sibling names and strange talents or habits (no, I am not talking about sixth grade me…). Others stick to the basics—first name, last name, hair color, and eye color—and go from there. We typically see those characters fleshed out as the story goes on, learning specific details as they relate to the story line.
But sometimes, we don’t. Some writers (inadvertently) leave their characters one-dimensional and bland. And that’s a big no-no. Characters—especially the main characters—are there for a reason. You are telling their story for a reason, and for that, you might want to give your character a personality. Does your character fear anything? Did she play a sport in high school or did he see his favorite band with his dad when he was fourteen? Any annoying habits or pet peeves? Does your character like his or her job? His or her family? Himself or herself?
Think about it: would you see a movie that simply details a day in the life of [insert name here]? You know next to nothing about this person. Sure, the plot can help plug the holes and the setting can provide a nice backdrop, but other than that, you’re clueless. You don’t have any reason to care because you’re watching a cardboard cutout walk around, living some random life. If I was watching that movie, I’d probably walk out of the theater.
Try making a social media page for your character. (No, you don’t really have to make a fake page.) Is your character into Facebook, or does this person like the brevity and instantaneous gratification of Twitter? Or, would your character stay far, far away from social media? That’s probably a small-but-important nugget of information for your readers. However, I would definitely warn against a laundry list of character facts. Just because you know something about your character doesn’t mean your readers need to know right away. Be sly. Be coy. Slip in little facts along the way. It’s like making a friend: you learn more and more as time goes on. In the literary world, each chapter is like another lunch date with your new acquaintance. By the end of the story, your readers should know and care about your characters, no matter if they’d like to give that person bear hug or hit him or her over the head with a frying pan. Either way, you’re creating something.
In short, don’t take any less time with your plot or your setting. Plan what you’d like and/or write from the heart. Most importantly, though, make sure your characters have more than just a name and a face. Give them their own thought process, their own reasons for making decisions. Remembers, characters are real people, too.
The image above is "Flight" by Gillian Collins.