Character Evolution

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.

Don’t Force It

During the week, I get up extra early so I can write. I’m a morning person, so getting up at 4:30 AM is not a big deal to me. The key for me is being consistent and having a routine so that I maintain the momentum that is necessary to complete a novel, but I don’t work on a novel every single morning. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, if I’m not in the mood to work on a book, then I write other things, whether it’s a post for this blog or just some random short story or scene that has been bouncing around in my head. Even with that many options, some mornings I just don’t feel it at all. Luckily, those moments are very rare, but they do happen, and that’s when I have to find some other use of my time. If I’ve learned anything over the years it’s that I can’t force myself to write just because that’s my routine or schedule. It doesn’t work that way. Some days I’m just not in the writing mood.

So what to do? Reading helps divert my mind into another world and often gets me primed to write again. A writer who doesn’t read won’t be a writer for long. Reading is an essential part of the writing process. You need to learn how other writers are doing it and it’s a great way to discover new ideas or fresh ways of telling the story. I consider reading part of my training and education as a writer, and it’s a great way to use the time when you don’t feel like writing. Besides, I love to read, and it reminds me of why I enjoy writing so much.

Another thing I’ll do when I’m out of sorts is research for my current novel. I’ll admit that I hate taking time away from writing to research even though it is necessary. I often research on the weekends or at other times outside of my writing schedule, but if I don’t feel like writing, then it’s a perfect time to research details for my story. I often make notes in my drafts for things I need to research (another reason I love Scrivener so much) and then, I go back to the story later to fill in the details. My current novel, The Fire Within, has many such notes, so I have plenty of items to research during any idle time I have available.

This is an example of another adjustment I’ve made over the years to get better as a writer. Many years ago, I’d get frustrated when I wasn’t in the writing mood and try to force it. The result wasn’t pretty, which would frustrate me even more and often cause me to stop writing for a while. Before I knew it, years passed and I had nothing to show for it. Now that I’m more flexible, I’m much more productive and happier with the result. The bottom line is that you can’t force the creative process no matter how disciplined you are, so you have to be prepared to adjust to stay on track. it seems counterintuitive, but it works for me.

Stitch It All Together

When I wrote my first novel, I outlined it, and then, I sat down over the course of six months and wrote it sequentially from beginning to end. It just flowed out that way because I had a good sense of the story I wanted to create. My second novel came out in much the same way. When an idea enthralls me and I have a good sense of my direction, this approach probably makes the most sense (at least for me), but sometimes I’m not as clear on the direction in which I want to take a story, so I try a different approach.

For the next two novels, I wrote scenes based on my thoughts or mood on the morning I was writing and then I stitched them together into the book that resulted.  This approach takes more work, but it allows me to make progress in a book without getting stalled a particular place in the story. Sometimes, elements of the story don’t work initially, so I have to put them away and come back to them later when I’m clearer on the direction I want to take.

In the novel I just finished, I wrote the beginning and the end and then I filled in the rest of the story. This approach actually worked very well for me in this instance because I wrote the ending in my head before I even had the rest of the story, and the beginning set the tone for how the novel would unfold. With these two guideposts, I was able to fill in the middle one scene at a time.

Although I’m an outliner, I try not to marry myself to one approach. My outlines may be very vague or they may be more detailed. I may do all my research up front, or I may fill it in as I work through the story. The key, for me, is to maintain some forward progress in my writing. If I get too hung up on my process or my approach, my writing may stall. I have a ton of ideas and very little precious time to write (an hour each weekday is about it), so I have to keep my momentum going.

It was that very momentum that I lacked for so many years before I finally set my mind to the task of writing a novel. In the past I’d get hung up on the process and stop writing. I’d fret over the outline or the flow of the story. I’d let good scenes slip from my mind with nary a single word written on a page. Essentially, I’d get wrapped around the axle of trying to be a writer instead of just writing. Now, I just write, and that has done wonders for my output and my enjoyment of writing itself. It keeps me motivated no matter what book, short story, or scene I’m working on at any given moment.

If you’re struggling with completing your work or starting the process, just write anything, something. Put it on the screen or paper and let it go from there. Don’t get too hung up on the process. It will free you to be creative and, most importantly, productive. That’s the most important lesson I’ve learned the past two years, and I hope it helps you.