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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Writer's Toolbox: Character Sketches

A number of years ago, I was talking about using character sketches and had another writer tell me this meant I wasn't a character-driven writer because character-driven writers don't use/need character sketches. The idea, especially back then, that I'm a plotter was hilarious. I've become less of a seat-of-the-pants writer as time has gone by, but even so no one who saw my process would ever accuse me of being a plot-driven writer.

Why would anyone limit their arsenal by declaring character sketches off limits to character-driven writers?

I will use any tool available when I need it and I don't give a rat's patootie about what type of writer would or wouldn't use it. Do I use character sketches all the time? No, although there are times I wish I would have at least for basic information like height, hair and eye color, etc. Even with pictures, sometimes it's nice to just see words describing the hero and/or heroine.

When I wrote Ravyn's Flight, I did use character sketches for all my characters--secondary and primary--and I filled them out completely. I really didn't need to do this for the book because my h/h were literally with me 24/7. I heard them talking in my head every waking minute of my day and I even had dreams about them. These character sketches ended up saving my butt when I started working on Eternal Nights, especially for Stacey and Alex. The four-year gap between the two books meant my memory of a lot of these details was gone. I did still have to reread RF a couple of times for things I'd forgotten, but it would have been harder without those sketches.

This also came in handy when it took me 18 months to sell a story I'd been shopping around, especially since I wrote two other books and a novella before I was able to start it. If you're going the traditional publishing route, who knows how long it will take to sell? With so many characters and projects darting in and out of my head, anything that helps with details is a good thing.

That said, right now I'm working on a project where my hero has been extremely close-mouthed about himself. I'm actually stuck because he's so blank to me and I need to do a character sketch for him, but I don't want to. :-) I've kind of gotten spoiled over the past seven or eight stories because I haven't needed to stop and take the time to do a sketch. I'll suck it up and do it because I don't know him well enough and I need to have that intimacy with who he is.

The funny thing is that I know him better as a teenager than as an adult. Unfortunately, I'm writing the man, not the boy.

When I first sold, I had an author who'd been published a good twenty years tell me that my writing process will change and that I shouldn't fight to do things the way I've always done them. That I should go with the story.

This has been some of the best advice I've ever received because my process changed dramatically from book to book the first five or six years I was published. I would have tied myself up in knots trying to force myself to do it the way I'd always done it in the past. Because of her wise words, I was able to let it go and do whatever I needed to write.

My advice--to add on top of the go with the advice from my author friend above--is don't open your toolbox and throw away options because of labels. Or because someone told you this type of writer doesn't need this tool. Use whatever you need to use and to hell with labels and rules.