I’m of the mind that characters are one of the constants of novels. I think it would be impossible to write a novel without having at least one character. If you were to write something without a character, you might be able to pass it off as a poem, perhaps, but certainly not a novel. An essay, maybe, or a dissertation, but not a novel. Also, realistically speaking, I don’t think you’d be able to limit yourself to just one character. You’d probably need at least one more. For what is a novel, but an exploration of human relationships and character development? How could one explore such without a selection of characters to delineate?
Since the above is true (or at least I regard it as true), it may be worthwhile to pound out a few thoughts on how novel characters come to be. What kind of effort goes into constructing one?
In the first draft of my first book, Drasmyr, I wrote everything stream-of-consciousness, revising as I went along. The characters only existed in my mind. I had a relatively small number, I was much younger with a more energetic brain (I think) so I could keep such things straight. I had no need for character description sheets, or anything of the sort. Nowadays, I’ve changed my approach. It’s kind of an approach-in-progress—because I’m constantly adding new things and tweaking things in a chaotic, disorganized way—but currently, I have notebook filled with character information sheets.
What’s in them, you ask? Well, start with the basics. First, you need a general description of the character. Height. Weight. Eye color. Hair color. Muscular? Thin? Etc… Keeping a good physical description in one place is a very good idea (I’m actually learning this the hard way, because I wrote the rough draft of book II before I wrote the character sheets—a silly mistake, but a painful one—but I intended to reread the thing a million times before I published it anyway), that way you can refer back to it whenever you need to and you don’t have to worry about making a mistake describing the character with blue eyes in one place, and brown in another, or what have you. That’s probably one of the simplest ways to save yourself some headaches. So, whenever you are writing and you introduce a new character, do yourself a favor and make up a character information sheet (unless that character is just a walk-on), put it a neatly organized folder for easy access later on.
Of course, characters are much more than their physical descriptions. They have personalities with conflicts and hang-ups and what have you. Their outlook on life changes as they progress through the story. All these things must be kept straight in order to tell a good story.
So, in order to flesh out the character, I include a section on the character’s history (birthplace, parent’s names, etc…), their clothing preferences (although that is hardly essential), their general personalities, and the crises, evolutions, or aspects of human nature I wish to explore while developing them. If the character is a religious fanatic, I include it here and try to explain why. If they hate goblins, well, what led to that bias? Recording changes in a character is probably the most important aspect of character development, but is also the hardest to convey in a single blog post. Characters evolve and change, they learn new things, they change their minds. That’s what the “development” in character development means.
Of course, this is very complicated particularly when there are multiple characters (I suddenly see the wisdom in limiting a novel to one main character—that definitely makes things easier). You have to track the changes and interactions. Generally, I do this on a separate sheet, in outline form only.
I’ve found that the easiest approach to character information sheets is to start each character on a fresh piece of paper. If you try to use the same piece of paper for multiple characters, you’re apt to run out of room. I’ve done this. I know. If they are separable, you can alphabetize (for easy reference) and also expand upon previous notes. You don’t have to write a character’s entire background the first time you use him or her, and you can always add additional sheets as you see fit.
Okay, I’ve blabbed about characters for quite a bit now. Time to end the post.