Pay It Forward · Tips · Writing

Characters

** THIS IS A REPOST OF A VERY EARLY BLOG POST **

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For me Characters are the best and most exciting part of writing.  Without good characters, your story goes nowhere.  Mine drive the story forward all on their own.

When I first come up with the idea for a story, I usually jot it down, in the first instance, as boy 1, girl 1, boy 2 etc., not giving names to anyone until I figure out who is doing what.  I write everything out in as much detail as comes to me but I don’t sit and look for ideas, I just write what instantly comes into my head.  That includes what characters do and say.  My notes normally don’t have a lot of talking in them, but they have the basic idea of conversations I want my characters to have.

Once my basic plan is in order, I don’t sit and plan out my characters; hair colour, eye colour, first and last name, brothers/sisters, past lives, future life, personality traits.  None of that exists until I start writing the story properly.  Even then, all I usually have is the basics of their appearance.  This is because characters grow when you’re not looking.  There was one story I wrote, a long time ago where the main character was a young girl.  I had planned on her being a tall brunette but she ended up a dainty blonde because it suited her.  I decided she needed a big, overprotective brother; he turned out to be in Iraq with the army and introduced another three characters I hadn’t expected.

And that is why the characters make the story.  Some are planned, some appear out of nowhere, and others force their way into stories whether you like it or not.  I don’t know how many times I’ve been writing a story and have felt that it was either too short or too focused on two particular characters.  What I do is come up with ‘filler’ storylines that will put in a little tension and suspense.  When I did this with my The Devereaux Casefiles, a crime series, I ended up creating six new characters who were either spies or criminals.  It added in a little excitement between the romance and recurring characters.

It is always the story that begins with characters.  I never plot out their existence but I adapt the characters to the storylines.  In one of my books, I started a book and was on chapter three before I decided that I didn’t like the beginning, it just didn’t draw the reader in as much as it should have.  So I went back and created an all new first chapter; my main character is kidnapped after waiting up to tell her husband a secret.  I didn’t know what the secret was at the time, that part didn’t come until the end of the chapter where I suddenly thought ‘hmm…what is the secret, how did she find out about it and what importance will it have to the story?’  Pretty soon, I had it.  She was going to be pregnant.  It wouldn’t interfere with the story too much, it would add character and tension to an already complicated situation and would allow her to take a back seat during certain events later to come, if I needed her to.  I could make her a hormonal wreck which would help with a few problems that occurred later on, and I could make her husband overprotective of her to the point of being dangerous.  That would add another dimension to the story, without having to change the plot.  It worked.  But I had never planned it.

I have recently finished my vampire series Secrets of Avelina, the same thing happened there.  I had originally planned on having two books in the series, I ended up with six.  All because the story didn’t seem complete and because I loved my characters too much to let them go.  They had grown into something wonderful and I wanted them to have a longer run, to do more exciting things.  But I didn’t know how.  I had no plan of how I was going to add more books or storylines to the series.  Then I found an old story, originally about ghosts in an old house on an Island, it turned into Vairi’s Revenge, the third book, and all I had to do was change the ghosts to vampires and I had a story.  Which was a good thing or else it might never have been written.  My plans for the ghost version were about a paragraph long, consisting only of :

A woman buys a house on an island that everyone thinks is cursed.  A lot of strange things happen and it turns out there are ghosts.  She invites the locals to stay with her to prove the house isn’t haunted and they all die.

Not much of a storyline.  But as soon as it was a part of the Secrets of Avelina series, I suddenly found all these ideas forming as to what my vampire characters could do, how Vairi and her mysterious house on the island would fit in.  By the time the notes were finished I had eight pages of rough ideas.  But the series still wasn’t finished.  I decided I needed something different and one of the characters in Vairi’s Revenge gave me that idea.  He was a lycanthrope; a werewolf.  I suddenly thought that, with everything that had happened in the series previously, it seemed only natural for the lycanthrope community to have its share of the glory.  My next two books were about lycans, with some minor stories from the previous Secrets of Avelina characters.  The last book was to be something special but it would never have got there if the characters hadn’t led me there.  The lycanthrope characters were different to the vampires.  With the vampire characters I had a clear idea of where I wanted them to end up, but there were multiple ways of getting them there and each held big differences to the others.  With the lycans I instantly knew what struggles they would have, what adventures they would encounter and where that would lead them.  My characters knew themselves well.

With the series complete, I went back and read each book from beginning to end, as a rough edit to check for mistakes, confusions, grammar etc.  I fell in love with my characters all over again.  And that is where I really see the best of them.  Writing characters is exciting when they walk away from where you want them to go, but reading them, complete and happy, is quite another.  You see them struggle and grow and change, and love and hate.  You see their development, if they became strong or weak or how certain events changed them.  You get to the end of a chapter or page and suddenly the focus goes from one characters minor cliff-hanger to a completely different character and you feel short changed and frustrated that you don’t get to find out what happens yet.  So you have to read on.  I feel it all the time with books I read for leisure…Game of Thrones, Agatha Christie, Elizabeth Peters…but it’s something else entirely when it’s one of your own stories and you still feel the tension and excitement the characters bring to a story.

When my characters stop surprising me, exciting me and giving that tension then I’ll stop writing.  Thankfully, I’ve got many, many more ideas to come yet and I always finish one of my stories with a smile on my face.

The problem with characters comes when you get into the nitty gritty.  I’ve discovered, now that Runaway Girl is published, that I have a mountain of characters, in various finished and note stories that are all called by the same name!  That’s a big no no.  I’ve only gone through 3 books, since I noticed, trying to separate them and organise them out and I’ve already discovered an Eric in every book, 2 Megans and 3 Williams.

That is the problem with having a preference for names, or writing similar versions of the one story.  I don’t know how many times that, being unsatisfied with a beginning or ending, or needing to find a new way to switch a story up, I’ve written multiple choices for where it could go.  Then, later, I decide to incorporate a few stories together.  Those multiple choices get renamed, mixed up and separated until I forget that I’ve got three old plots for one story, with the characters all having the same names, and I’ve never noticed.  Suddenly, I’ve got three complete novels with the same character names, the same events taking place and sometimes identical conversations going on.  It’s a disaster.

Thankfully, disasters can be overcome.  Like I say…the character drives the story.  But character’s names and appearances and conversations can change.  So, my aim in the next few days, or weeks, however long it takes, is to identify all the names I’ve used in completed stories, keep them logged in a file that I can turn to later for comparison, and make sure there are no repetitions.

This is where I have to do all the work.  Characters can’t just jump out the screen and complain that they and another person are identical.  I’ve got to spot it, I’ve got to fix it and I am so thankful for computers.  Just add a list of names, with the books they’re mentioned in to a spreadsheet and sort it by name, and I can instantly see the problems jumping out at me.

So, I better get at it.  Books might write themselves, but I am occasionally needed 🙂

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