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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Character Sketches

Last night, I was chatting with my writing buddy who's doing NaNo with me. She didn't feel like she knew enough about her heroine and we spent about 45 minutes going through and filling out a grid from a workshop we'd both heard. She attended an all-day version and I'd listened to an abbreviated version from one of the RWA conferences. We managed to make a lot of progress before she needed to log off. Before she went, though, she said she just didn't feel like she had a grasp on this hero and heroine like she's had with her other heroes and heroines. I offered to send her my character sketch after I warned her not to be scared by it. :-)

This got me thinking about character sketches. Someone a while back accused me of not being a character-driven writer because I will fill out a sketch when I feel the need to do so, but she was completely wrong. I am a character-driven writer and I always have been. My characters come in as fully-formed people from minute one. They're not flat or cardboard even the first minute they're there. Take Mika for example. She showed up and told me her name and didn't say one more word, but I knew she was mischievous just from that three second interaction.

That doesn't mean there aren't times I don't fill out character sketches. For one thing, the information my hero or heroine passes along might not be everything I want to know. Like most people, there are things they'd rather not talk about and if I don't put the questions to them, I'm not going to find out about those items until I'm writing the book. If I need to foreshadow something, I'd like to know about it at the start instead of figuring it out midway through the book and having to go back and add it later.

Hell, I do whatever I have to in order to ferret out my character's deep and dirty secrets. I'll interview siblings, parents, friends, co-workers, whoever is handy if I have to. I want to know more than what they're open about. And sometimes characters aren't being reticient, sometimes they really have a skewed vision of themselves (and why wouldn't they since so many real-life people can't see themselves clearly either). Talking to other people my h/h know after doing a character sketch gives me a whole knew perspective of the character.

I've also filled them out because I've had characters who lie to me. That doesn't mean they're going to tell me the truth when I put the sketch questions at them, but because I've asked the same questions of characters who have told the truth, I'm better able to gauge when someone is fabricating.

The third reason is a big one--sometimes I proposal won't sell right away and I'll work on other projects between when I put together the chapters and synopsis and when I'm actually able to write the book. (In the case of In the Midnight Hour, it was 2 years between proposal and being able to start the book and in the meantime, I finished 2 other books.)

Or when I end up doing a spin-off book when I didn't plan on it. Eternal Nights spun off of Ravyn's Flight, but I wrote three other books and several proposals between RF and EN. I couldn't remember things from four years earlier when I'd written RF and the character sketches were a life saver, especially for Alex and Stacey who were the secondary romance in both books. Even with the sketches and time lines I'd drawn out, I still had to go back and reference RF a few times, but I shudder to think how many times I would have needed to reread if I didn't have the sketches handy.

Of course, just because the sketches are useful doesn't mean I fill them out on every book. I don't. Sometimes I'll just fill in the facts about the h/h's appearance--height, hair and eye color, age and stuff like that. Other times, I'll fill in parts of the sketch, usually if there are areas where I think I could probe a little deeper than what I'm being told.

Sometimes I don't fill them out at all. I didn't on Edge of Dawn and I don't think I'm going to do it for the WIP either, but then I didn't need to. Logan and Shona are both open characters and I learned a lot about Logan's brother Kel and his heroine while I was working on EOD. In fact, Kel was talking to me while I was trying to write Logan, so not only did I get to know him from his own point of view, I got to know him from Logan's point of view as well. I love the different perspectives and that's been one of the cool things about writing a series is seeing not just different characters from varying viewpoints, but also seeing their society from different viewpoints.