Tips, Writing

Write the Novel: Character Starter Kit

I love role-playing games and have gamed in a lot of universes: cyber-punk, Cuthulian 1920s, science fiction, and my eventual favorite, what’s now called steam-punk. One of the reasons I came to love Space 1889 was that the characters were fast and dirty. I don’t mean that they lacked personal standards of either morality or cleanliness, but they were quick to create. To play, all I needed was to pick a primary career, a secondary career, and a handful of attributes. A few rolls of the dice, and I was ready to play.

In one of my first writing classes, my instructor gave us a list of 100 questions to ask our characters. Novice that I was, I went away and tried to go through the entire list with a couple of characters. At the rate that went, my character profiles would be longer than the book I intended to write.

Using the Space 1889 philosophy, I knew I needed a way to create quick and dirty characters, so I could jump into play, er, writing. Here’s the 10-point starter kit that I now use for my first attempt at character creation. Believe me, I didn’t think up all this good stuff by myself. Where I learned about something from a far better writer, I’ve given that person credit.

One: Dominant impression (Debra Dixon)

Two words—one adjective and one noun—that summarize the character. The noun is not the same thing as a profession, but may indicate a role similar to that profession. Or it might relate to something totally separate from what the person does for a living. For example, my character might run a corporation, but she’s also a woman who likes control. She has to be in charge, whether it’s at the office, or deciding what wine to order in a restaurant. When I describe her dominant impression is a stern boss, I’m referring to that need for control, not the fact that she occupies the CEO’s office.

Two: Tag line (Debra Dixon)

One sentence that describes the character’s main motivation. In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s tag line was, “There’s no place like home.”  For E.T., the tag line was “phone home.” For Indiana Jones, it’s “Why does it always have to be snakes?” Though we try to avoid cliches in writing, this is one place that cliches are useful. A tag line of “party hearty,” would immediately give us a different impression of a woman than “nothing says loving like something from the oven.”

Three: Flawed life view (Liz Lounsbury, also writes as Liz Jarret) Sorry, I couldn’t find a site for her.

What has the character gotten wrong about life and/or relationships? Example: my protagonist thinks it’s great to encourage and protect other people, but he himself must not accept encouragement or protection.

Four: The line in the sand (Donald Maass)

What is the one thing the character is convinced he would never do? What would happen if she crossed that line? Example: She’ll never tell who really financed her college education and why. When she does tell, the police reopen a cold case, and her mother is suspected of murder. Here’s a hint, as soon as we set up the non-crossable line, it becomes our task to maneuver the character so he or she must cross that line.

Five: Jobs (Carolyn Wheat)

A job is not what the character does for a living; jobs are why characters are in a story. Ideally, each character should have at least 3 jobs.

Jordon is in this book because

  1. He’s the person who cooked the books at the modelling agency.
  2. He saw Carla on River Road last Friday night.
  3. He’s the second murder victim.

One-job characters are notoriously boring. They appear, deliver their clue or red herring, and disappear. Give that one job to another character and delete the one-job character.

Six: Dangerous secret(s)

What does the character know that is dangerous to another character? Sometimes it’s similar to, but different, from line in the sand. The line in the sand must involve a moral or ethical line the character firmly believes he/she will not cross. A dangerous secret may involve a moral or ethical line, but it doesn’t have to. A character might keep a secret out of fear, or a promise to another character, or because life would get very messy if that secret was out.

In many cases secrets provide the best red herrings because the character’s motivation can be misinterpreted. A classic example is the song Long Black Veil, ©1959 by Marijohn Wilkin and Danny Dill. The guy in the song has a good reason for not telling the judge where he was when the murder was committed, and in the end, he pays for keeping his secret.

Seven: Emotional profile

  • Where does the character’s heart lie? Equally important, what does the character’s heart lie about, even to himself?
  • What does he value and why? Does he attempt to hide his values? Why or why not? What has it cost him to value this? What rewards have come from valuing this?
  • What’s more important to the character, hiding or expressing this emotion? Why
  • What emotions are most important?
  • How does having this emotional profile make her stronger? Make him weaker?

Eight: Defining moments (Donald Maass)

What were three utterly defining moments when the character’s world turned, and he could never go back to being what he’d been before? The first two moments can have happened any time in the character’s life; the third one should happen very close to the book’s beginning. It may happen in the early part of the book. This third defining moment is one answer to the question why now? What happened to set this book in motion?

Imagine a glass so full that it has a dome of liquid on top, held there by surface tension. Put one more drop into the glass. Of course, everything spills over the side. That’s what the third defining moment does to the character, and the spilling over the side forces the character into the story.

  1. When Vanessa was seven, and her sister was nine, they saved a man from a burning building. They were the youngest people in their city to ever be awarded lifesaving medals.
  2. Three years ago Vanessa’s sister moved away and adopted a new identity because life had gotten too much for her to handle. Only Vanessa knows where she is.
  3. This morning, the man whose life they saved years ago shows up in Vanessa’s office. He wants to start a Foundation to fund special projects for burn units,  but only if Vanessa and her sister agree to be the spokeswomen for the Foundation. Is Vanessa going to tell him where her sister is or not?

Nine: Defining ages

This one is highly culturally significant. What I say below is true for a character living in the last 100 years or so, usually with a European or North American background. If we write characters from other times and places, we need to research what turning points are important for people at that place and time, and use those ages as our markers.

In what year and what place, did the character turn 6, 15, 18?

  • At 6, most children enter school. It makes a huge difference to who the character is if she turned 6 in Austria, at the beginning of World War II, or turned 6 in Kansas in 1985.
  • At 15, a lot of cultural norms are laid down. It’s the music we hear at 15, the clothes we wear, or our favorite junk food that, almost always, marks the good old days.
  • At 18, a person faces career and education choices. Again, it would make a difference to how a teen-ager was shaped if he turned 18 in downtown Detroit in the summer of 1968, or in suburban Boston in 2004.

Ten: Just the facts, ma’am

  • Name: we talked about names in last week’s blog
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Racial background/heritage
  • Level of education
  • What activities fill a character’s day?
  • Sexual orientation? Relationships and how are they going?
  • Physical description: how does the character see himself/herself? How do other people see him/her?

Join me on Thursday for some thoughts on Level Thinking: Creativity and Aging (Here’s a hint: it’s a positive feedback loop.)

Next Tuesday, I’ll do Characters, Part 3 — Fleshing out the Starter Kit