the trouble with story description

I want to see characters grow. Change. Struggle. Thrive.

I’ll outline a story to a point, but then it’s up to the characters to carry out the actions or encounter the people or events I’ve set up. Sometimes those characters change what was in my expected outline. Since I frequently write scenes out of order, that means I have a lot of documents lying around with thousands of words I’ll never use. Often the outline gets cast aside at some point, a skeleton of its former self as I focus on what the characters are doing or the roadblocks I put in their way.

Unlike outlines, I constantly edit my query letters. Yes, sometimes I do it to ensure I’m following a particular agent’s guidelines, but other times it’s because I know I can improve them. (If I’m honest, improvement is a factor every time.) Sure, a lot of wordcrafting is involved. However, recently the focus has been shifting. I want my books to be about people. People in fantastical places and/or with fantastical abilities running into fantastical situations, but people nonetheless. Much of what I write is plot-driven, yet I want to learn about the characters trapped within that plot, and I hope I never sacrifice character development for the sake of plot. If I do, revision alarms better be going off in my head.

Writing pitches for #PitMad and #SFFpit revealed a few unexpected things for me in one of my novels. Those pitches drove me to create an outline of an already-written book not about the plot, but about the growth of one of the characters. It followed her evolution from someone who reacted to the things that happened around her to someone who made those things happen, who took control of her life and made hard but clear choices about the next step she would take.

Of course, that meant I had to go back to the novel and make sure she consistently followed this outline. Surprisingly, the course of events remained about the same. Instead, I had to fix her thoughts, her dialogue, even her body language as her motivations and her beliefs became clearer in my mind. In the process, she became a more crisp character on paper.

Now I can’t wait to give her another book. I may have to spend some time outlining other characters today.

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Discovering your characters

A character questionnaire can ask (a lot of) deep, intimate questions. They’re useful for getting to know a character, but they may not help you figure out when that character might reveal such information. Or to whom.

  • Who is she willing to confide in? Who would she tell about her past relationships?
  • What kind of place is he in when he’s willing to share more personal details? Is it a coffee shop, a bar, a casual restaurant, or an upscale dining establishment?
  • Is she in a large group when she talks about herself, or does she prefer a small circle of people? Are they already close friends?

In my experience, another difficulty with these lists is that some questions can’t be answered until the story has further developed. Nevertheless, keeping questions in mind may not only inform future character decisions but can also lead a writer to consider other scenes, other conversations, other events that may not have happened otherwise.

Backgrounds of minor characters

Every character in a story is a person, someone who had a childhood, an upbringing, a family or lack thereof. He or she faced tough times or easy ones or a combination of both. Each one lived in a single place for a long time, moved around frequently, or spent time as a vagabond. Some of them play instruments. Others can sing. (Still others send their audience running to the hills when they try either.)

I “meet” so many people by writing. I try to see their world through their eyes, their beliefs, their experiences. Does she hate her mother for forcing her to become a seamstress, or does she hate herself for her own lack of skill? Does he blame his father for leaving, or does he think his family is better off without such a man in their lives? Does she dote on her daughter because she always wanted to be a mother or because her life was transformed when the child was born?

In a story with a massive cast or numerous people who only appear for less than a page, it’s difficult to give each one such a background. Then again, if it’s just a note in the back of your mind or on a scrap sheet of paper, is it so hard to write a sentence or two when you’ve already gone to the trouble of giving him or her a name?