I have learned that developing a plot is almost impossible without becoming thoroughly familiar with my characters. In years past, I did the following, with no good results, to write a novel: write and perfect my novel’s first chapter, outline and re-outline, sometimes getting as far as Chapter 10 before realizing that all I had was a collection of organized vignettes, not a real plot.
But this time, I have found that I’m making better progress by taking the time to become thoroughly acquainted with my characters and am reaching a point in which those characters almost appear to be real. I’ve explored their experiences, thoughts, looks, reactions to things that happen to them and reasons why. Quite a few of my characters are composites of people I have known, liked and disliked. One of those characters, for example, is based on an overweight hypocritical, gossipy neighbor who lives across the street. She makes up stories about people she hardly knows and tells them to her next-door neighbors, who apparently eat her gossip up as if it were the gospel truth. My character possesses similar characteristics, but happens to be extremely reckless and short, is on the verge of divorcing her overweight nasty husband who now realizes his mistake in marrying her. The only problem now is that he is stuck.
Once I get to know my main character better, I’m going to explore her job, town, hobbies, interests other than gossiping, favorite foods, relatives, children, and looks. No one will ever know that she is a composite of other people I have known, as her name and age are also different.
One writing reference book even suggests that in addition to all of this, that writers like myself should recall memories of their own childhoods, such as where they lived, attended school and ate and played with. Then integrate these memories in developing a character’s background. Even the smallest details should be noted, such as school mates, teachers, classrooms and the like. Immediately, I remembered two of my seventh-grade classmates who tormented me that year. They shared secrets, friendship, homework and gossip. They’d always sit or stand around together and both loved our teacher, a young woman who recently graduated from college. Our teacher was attractive and engaged to be married, adding to the speculation about her life. And she had pets, namely my two tormentors.
The process of getting to know characters can take awhile, but that is fine, according to the author of the writing reference book. He also explained that developing such details gives one a better idea of what kind of trouble to give the main character. And this trouble doesn’t have to be a big deal. It could be as simple as losing a treasured item and basing a plot on that loss. Of course, adding to that plot by creating subplots and twists will ultimately result in a page-turner — and who knows, maybe even a movie! And to think that much of this begins with a character that we like, hate or simply love to hate.
Dorothy Zjawin is presently developing characters for her novel and shares lessons she’s learned in this article. She also includes posts about novel writing in her blog http://moneywrites.blogspot.com