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How to Write a Novel in Six Months, Week 4: Sketching Characters

Updated on August 27, 2008
Photo: nuanc,Flickr
Photo: nuanc,Flickr

I have to admit, this isn't my favorite week. For whatever reason, I have always been resistant to the idea of creating detailed character sketches. Even though I know it'll help, I still don't like to do it. Here are my tricks for getting characters out of my head and onto the page.

Develop Your Protagonist First

Part of the problem I've had writing fiction is the idea that I have to ‘make everything up'. What I learned from Christopher Vogler's Writer's Journey (told you it was my favorite!) was that all the other characters in your novel really only exist to illuminate some aspect of your lead's character, usually by posing or creating conflict or just by having different traits.

That perspective makes things a lot easier. I already knew the main story I wanted to tell and had a pretty good idea of who my main character was. Now all I had to do was populate the other roles in the story with different types of people.

Creating Supporting Characters

While there is some good advice about different roles characters play in Writer's Journey, for the details of personality types I looked to 45 Master Characters, by Victoria Schmidt. I also used Elizabeth George's Write Away for guidance and inspiration. You can really go about creating characters any way you like and there are a lot of different ways to approach it. As I mentioned, this isn't my favorite thing to do.

I got myself to do it by starting to type out Schmidt's descriptions of whatever archetype I had chose for a particular character. I substituted her generic title for my character's name and just started imagining them. Soon I would go ‘off book' and start making things up that went along with the characterization of the mythic archetype.

Characterization Leads to Plot

You can argue all you want about what comes first, characterization or plot, but for me it's a collaborative process. You have an idea for a story and maybe someone who's living it. Then you work out some major plot points and work out a few more characters. Once you get to the stage of fleshing out characters, you learn details about their lives that will affect the plot. And we haven't even started ‘writing' yet!

Although I at first resisted formal character sketches, I can't imagine how you'd produce a novel length work without them. If you can keep it all in your head, you've got more compartments than I do.

Please share your own tips for creating characters in the comments!

How to Write a Novel in Six Months, One Writer's Journey

Week 1, Mapping Out the Six Month Plan

Week 2, Resources on Structure

Week 3, Index Cards Are My Friends

Week 5, Researching Agents

Week 6, OutliningWeek 7, Detail Scene Beats

Week 8, Writing the Synopsis

Weeks 9 - 18, Drafting Updates

Week 19, Sanity Break

Week 20, Transitions

Week 21, Reading the Draft

Weeks 22 - 24 First Revision


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  • SEXYLADYDEE profile image

    SEXYLADYDEE 3 years ago from Upstate NY

    I have scenarios in my head and characters. Usually a scene illicits the actions of the characters. Unless the scene in my head is based on something that has occurred in real life. How someone reacted in real life adds depth to the character I am creating. If the scene comes first then I have to dig a little deeper into what would motivate someone or what actions would put them there.

  • profile image

    Johnny 8 years ago

    is this blog till active?

  • Lela Davidson profile image

    Lela Davidson 9 years ago from Bentonville, Arkansas

    Great point! I did that too to some extent - just as a base like you say. I started with the archetype and thought of someone who was close to that in reality and then worked from there. Thanks for reminding me!

  • Serenity Live profile image

    Serenity Live 9 years ago from Midwest

    I just wrote this same tip on another blog today. But so far with all of my characters, I start with a person I know or have at least seen. I grasp at least one unique feature about them and go with that. The fictional character ends up being someone completely different than the real one and looks different even, but that foundation in reality helps me start the process.