Before I begin writing a novel, I like to write short summaries about each main character. This helps me in two ways: (1) It keeps me consistent throughout the novel and (2) It ensures the story arc works as the plot unfolds. There’s nothing worse than writing a novel and realizing that your character had brown hair in chapter one and blonde hair in chapter seven. It has happened for less primary characters in stories I’ve written. Character snapshots give me something to refer to later on when I’m deep into a novel and may have forgotten what I’d written months ago. When I conceive a novel, I have an idea of how my characters will react throughout the story arc. Their specific personality traits are important to the story, especially as they experience the inevitable transformation, so it’s important to get their personalities just right. Character snapshots help me do that.
It’s important to remember that this is just a starting point. I’m free to change my characters as the novel unfolds, and I often do. When writing Origins, Sanjay began as a grumpy, relatively harmless character, but I came out of the first chapter with new ideas of how he would evolve in the novel. When I change the characters, I always update my snapshots to keep me on point. Sometimes, characters change so much in the course of writing the novel that I end up with inconsistencies in the first draft. My character snapshots, assuming I’ve kept them up-to-date, really save my bacon in these cases. I can go back and refer to them during the editing process and smooth out the rough edges before I declare my work a “first draft.” These snapshots require some investment of time before I begin writing, but I see them as an essential foundation.
The first version of my snapshot is simply a quick description with my initial thoughts on the character. I don’t worry about trying to describe everything. I’ll add and take away from it as I work through the novel. By the end of the writing process, I’ll have a more complete version of the snapshot that I can use in the editing process. One thing I’ve learned in writing novels is that I need to get my ideas on the page quickly including the character snapshots. Worrying about perfection on the rough draft is a recipe for failure. That’s why editing is so crucial – it gives you the opportunity to make it “perfect,” or as perfect as your work is going to be.
Here’s the snapshot for the main character, Grace Garrison, in my latest project:
Grace Garrison is a 16-year-old girl with brown hair and a light complexion. She’s thin and short for her age. She speaks with a soft southern accent that emphasizes her shyness despite having spent her entire life in the spotlight of her grandmother’s ministry. Although she is kind to others, she seems like she doesn’t want to be where she is. On stage in her grandmother’s church, she appears to be on the verge of making a hasty exit. She spends most of her time with her grandmother as she is home-schooled to keep her “away from the unsavory elements of public school.” She has no friends outside of the ministry and has experienced few things far from her grandmother’s purview. Since her parents died when she was a baby, in the same plane crash in which she was the sole survivor, she has no memory of them and only knows them through the stories her grandmother tells her. She keeps a photograph of them together on their wedding day on her nightstand in her bedroom.
As you can see, this isn’t meant to be a compelling screed for a book jacket. The purpose is to formulate the character in my mind and keep me centered on who the character is. I find this approach very useful in my writing, and the Scrivener software I use to compose a novel makes it easy to refer to the character snapshots as I write.
I’m sure there are many ways to compose a novel. Every writer has to find the way that works for him or her. This is just one of the ways I’ve found to help me work through the process of creating a novel. After so many years of fits and starts, it’s something that has helped me get over the hump of finally finishing a novel.