When I begin a novel, I typically write character summaries for each main character that includes descriptions such as what they look like and what their personalities are like. I include any backstory that I think may have a bearing on how they interact with other characters or change throughout the story. I consider this the baseline for my characters, but I don’t let it dictate the story too much.
I view these character summaries in much the same way as I view my outlines. They are guideposts in the writing process that can be moved or changed to accommodate the story as it evolves, and much like the original plot idea, characters often evolve in unforeseen ways during the writing and editing processes. Sometimes, I’ll go back to my original character summaries to see how much the characters changed from the beginning of the writing process – the change may be very little or it may be a lot. It’s fun to take a look back.
Why even bother with these summaries if I know I’m going to change the characters? I need them to keep me consistent throughout the story. As I write these novels, six months typically pass. I’m writing an hour or more a day for five days a week. If I didn’t have the summaries, my characters would be inconsistent in the novel in how they appear or behave. For example, in my last project, one of my characters had blonde hair in one chapter and brown in another. I could have justified that with the fact that women often change hair color, but it didn’t really make sense. I went back to my character summary to check the color and kept it consistent. This is a simple example of how the summaries keep me in line, but the same holds true for any major attribute for my characters.
The paradox in all of this is that my characters have to change. I write these summaries before I even begin writing the novel, but it’s impossible to capture every element of their being before I begin writing about them. As I’m working through the scenes and determining how they react to the things being thrown at them, I learn more about who I want them to be, so I change them. In my current novel, Origins, I decided that I wanted one of my pivotal characters to be more confrontational to add more conflict to the story rather than be the introspective type I described in my character summary. Her role is very important to the novel because she discovers the thing that totally twists the story and sends the reader for a loop. I needed her to be more obstinate and determined to fit the arc of the story, so I changed her.
As I get deeper into a story, I feel like I get to know my characters better. Just like when I meet someone for the first time and get better acquainted with them, I learn more about my characters as I write the story. I can describe them better than I could at the beginning. I know more about them and see how they change as they interact with other characters and are influenced by the story. It’s a virtuous cycle that bears fruit as the story progresses.
While I have a process that I follow, I’m not married to the result. I let my characters evolve to fit the story, but I remain grounded in who they are or were in the beginning. It gives my stories consistency and keeps me focused on the story I want to tell. In the end, I hope it produces the best story possible. It’s certainly fun to watch my characters evolve.