Posts Tagged ‘characters’

Every writer develops their stories in different ways. Some outline, some write from scratch and let the characters develop and the plot emerge as they write. Others might draft three or four chapters before they decide it’s time to step back and determine the flow of the story.

I’ve tried all of the above and other approaches, but always come back to, and finally settled on outlining. My “ideal” story will be mapped out with all questions and issues resolved before I write the draft. Of course, that’s in a perfect world.

Regardless of the approach you use, at some point the chronology of the events in the lives of your characters will need to be validated. Most, if not all stories involve background events for your main characters, which may or may not be included in the final version. But these events are important because you want to ensure, for example, that your antagonist (let’s say he or she is a serial killer), was in a certain location at a certain time when he or she claimed their first victim. You also want to make sure he or she was not six months old at the time of the murder.

Here is where a timeline is most useful and I believe must be part of the writing process at some point of story development. What you use to create a timeline is a matter of choice.

In the past I’ve used a Word document in the standard outline form and even used Post-It notes on a whiteboard, but a template I created (and am always “tweaking”) in Excel has proven its worth and stood the test of time. If you’ve ever ‘Googled’ the phrase ‘Timeline in Excel,’ you’ll find more examples than you’ll know what to do with. The truth is, figuring out which one best fits your needs can consume a lot of time.

I’m hoping to spare you that research time.

I’m a proponent on providing examples because I believe giving advice without suggesting how to implement that advice falls well short of being effective. It’s like your doctor telling you to lose weight then sending you on your way without recommending the best approach.

For the moment and the sake of this blog, consider me a caring doctor.

Here is my prescription – my timeline template in Excel in column listing form.

  • Event Month
  • Event Day
  • Event Year
  • Time of day (Estimate)
  • Time of day (Precise)
  • Event Character
  • Event Character birthdate
  • Event Character Age
  • Details (a short summary of the event)
  • Event Location
  • Where does the event become known?
  • Notes (a free form column to expound on event details, ask questions, or brainstorm

If you’ve used Excel for any amount of time, you’re aware of its flexibility and power. Using drop-down lists, tables, and calculations, I’ve saved considerable time filling in the columns in my template.

For instance, I created a character table in a separate sheet and use a drop-down to select the Event Character. This keeps me from having to refer to a separate source of characters.

I use drop-down lists to select Event Month, Day, and Year.

You’ll notice I listed two Time of Day columns. In the Estimate column, I use a drop down list of 24 values corresponding to the hours of the day. This is a ball park time for when the event might occur. In the Precise column I enter the actual time the event occurred, because multiple events are likely to occur within a given hour and it’s essential to list them chronologically. Are both necessary? Perhaps, perhaps not, but to each his own, and in the words of actor Fred Dryer who starred in the TV series, Hunter, “works for me.” I’m probably dating myself but you get what I mean.

The character name table includes birthdate which allows me to set up the calculated column to show the character’s age at the time of an event. This allows me to verify that the CEO of a company is not four years old, for example.

Hopefully before I progress too far into the story development phase, I’m able to create a drop down list for my scenes or chapters, allowing me to select from the list to enter it into the column where does the event become known? For instance, the event date and time our serial killer won’t become known until later in the story, after the protagonist investigates (and hopefully finds and stops the dude).

The Data –> Filter tool in Excel is a powerful and valuable assistant.

Once I fill in as much of the timeline sheet as I can, I can display by a certain value or values by selecting that value or values from the column.

  • I filter by character to track the events in their life.
  • I filter by date to see what events occurred on that date.
  • I filter by scene or chapter to isolate the events that will become known at that time, which allows me to start drafting that particular scene or chapter.
  • I validate that my character’s age jibes with the event, and check the time to ensure the facts of the story are presented as they occur in the story.

. . . All at the touch of a button!

Another benefit to this timeline manifests itself during the brainstorming phase. By filtering on an event for a certain character, I can create previous and/or subsequent events for any character I believe will contribute to the plot. This determines the flow of the story.

For example, I might have an event, ‘John discovers a dead body.

From this I can brainstorm and create previous and subsequent events for John as well as other characters. Who is the person? Who killed them? How did they get there? When did they kill this person? Did anyone witness the murder? Placing characters in a location and time will help to determine hints, clues, and witnesses.

I’ve discovered the best thing about this timeline approach to developing story is it’s more fun than writing the actual story.

Isn’t it “time” for your timeline?

 

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As writers seeking the one magical piece of advice making our names synonymous with Stephen King, John Grisham, Sue Grafton and a host of other best-selling authors, we’ve read it a hundred times –

If you don’t have interesting characters, you have no story. Forget interesting! The reader absolutely must love (or hate) your character and feel what they feel, as if they themselves were in the middle of that character’s world.

No argument there. But the biggest problem with advice is it doesn’t often include examples of how to bring those characters to life.

The “experts” advise spending time developing their character; come to know them as if you were playing the part.

This is called character profiling.

I’ve been at the writing game for longer than I care to admit. Through articles, blogs, how-to books, my own research, and a love affair with Google, I’ve produced an extensive character profile in Excel, my writing companion I would be absolutely lost without. As it is with most writing templates, it is an ever-changing and ever-growing work-in-progress.

My character profile is broken down into 36 categories, among them Name, Physical Description, Background, Education, Psychological, Sociological, Relationships . . . you get the idea.

The categories themselves are subdivided into 475 rows of detail. For instance, a character’s physical description includes height, weight, hair color, eye color, physique.

How much or how little of a character profile is recommended is directly related to the role the character plays in the story. A typical story will usually contain three main characters. Protagonist, Antagonist, and Love Interest, perhaps one or two more, and are the only characters requiring a “complete” character profile. Indeed, no more than a physical description is needed for the majority of the characters in the story.

It’s the “complete” in the above paragraph that bogged me down in my early days of writing, when I was naïve and took every piece of advice to heart. I wanted to be “complete” in developing my main characters, making sure I knew how they ate, talked, walked, spoke, and slept, all of which required extensive thought and decision. After all, we can’t have every character born in California and eating pasta every night for dinner.

The more I read and the more I practiced my craft, the less naïve I became. I started to take each piece of advice with a grain of salt, particularly when the advice, some from best-selling authors, often contradicted each other. You know what I’m talking about . . . you’ve been there, haven’t you?

I was spending so much time on the character profile; all it did was keep me from writing the story.

Yes, interesting characters are an absolute must for a good story, but if nothing happens to the most interesting character in the world, guess what? You have no story.

Now when I sit down to develop a story, I work my character profile and story structure in concert. By story structure I mean plots, obstacles, and conflict . . . in short . . . events, all of which need to be worked around the goals and motivations of the main characters.

I create the bare minimum of my extensive character profile, followed by at least an idea of what events will drive the actions of the characters. If I’m lucky, I’ll have a skeleton of scenes and chapters outlined, even if a particular scene/chapter description is simply ‘Detective Finds Body.’

Once I create a basic idea of the structure, I can return to my character profile and fill in only the appropriate details. For example, the fact my main character might have attended elementary school in Kansas is only relevant if something significant happened during that time and contributed to the makeup of the character. Unless I decide to write a scene in a restaurant, it’s probably not important to spend much (if any) time determining what foods the character prefers or how he or she eats.

Take it from me; filling out a comprehensive character profile should be done with extreme prejudice because it can chew up a lot of time otherwise spent writing the story.

More importantly, since the writer’s goal is to maximize show, and minimize tell, there might be a tendency to provide nothing more than a “laundry list” of a character’s traits without considering its importance. I fell into this trap early on and many times “threw” something together just to fill in the blanks.

There is an obvious benefit to using this approach. Rather than get bogged down with what might be called the administrative details, it will encourage you to start writing the story, the goal of every writer.

The biggest reason not to spend too much time on profiling is you might end up “pigeonholing” your character. If you’ve been at this game for any amount of time, I expect you’ll agree that while you draft your story, your character will be shaped and reshaped through the events, conflict, dialogue and interaction between other characters, often rendering your original character profile you spent so much time on, null and void.

Give it a try.

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A Day in the Life of . . .

Begin at the Beginning

 Perhaps the most popular piece of advice for writers is to begin the story in medias res (in the midst of things). Start with a significant event, something exciting to draw the reader into the story so they can’t wait to read what happens next.

Mystery writer’s typically open their story with a victim, usually a dead body, perhaps floating on the river or buried in a shallow grave in the woods. Romance writers might open their story with the discovery of a sordid affair. Science fiction writers might describe in great detail the explosion of an unexplored distant planet.

Readers want more than anything to know what happens to the main characters. They want to identify with the main character(s), love the protagonist, despise the antagonist, feel their pain and sorrow, and share in their joy. Memorable characters make or break a story and often an author’s success hangs in the balance.

Character’s lives are formed and affected by events, both historical (before the story starts) and ongoing (what happens during the story). An author might have the most interesting characters in the world, but if nothing happens, there is no story. It reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where George and Jerry pitch an idea to NBC for a show about nothing.

Coming up with a story idea and an effective opening which entices the reader to sit up and take notice isn’t usually difficult. A murder, an explosion, a car accident – throw in a character or two and you have a solid opening to a story.

It’s what follows the opening that sometimes bogs us down. Even more, it’s what comes before the opening, the events leading up to where your main character(s) find themselves that sometimes offers a greater challenge and often leads to the writer’s most feared adversary – writer’s block.

Most writers experience writer’s block at some point in their quest to write the Great American Novel and it comes in all shapes and sizes. You might draw a complete blank and cannot get started; staring at a blank page for what seems like hours until you finally surrender and turn on the TV. You might have a solid story line but struggle to organize your scenes and chapters. Or you know what the story is about, have a number of interesting characters standing by waiting to be cast into your imaginary world, but can’t decide what they do, and when, how, and where they do it.

Try doing a biographical sketch of your characters. They all had a life before the story began and thousands of events to draw upon. You don’t need much detail but deciding on the most significant events for your main character will allow you to brainstorm how your character dealt with, say, an abortion or a death in the family. Perhaps he or she was robbed at gunpoint or saved the life of a friend. Maybe they were bullied in elementary school and later on in the story meet one of their tormentors. Memorable events like these shape your characters and influence how they deal with life’s challenges.

I suspect most writers agree conflict is necessary to present an entertaining and hopefully unforgettable story. By brainstorming the life’s events of your main characters (by main characters I mean those contributing to the story), you can determine when and how these characters in conflict first meet and how their lives become intertwined.

I find the biographical sketch method useful in a number of ways.

  1. Provides the background story necessary to keep the timeline accurate.
  2. Brings your story to the point of your in media res.
  3. Encourages a natural reaction to ask What if?
  4. Helps to determine character motive.

What will emerge from this process is a timeline for the major characters.

For example, let’s assume your story begins with the protagonist getting death threats from person or persons unknown. Your biographical sketch reveals a few years ago he or she intervened in a hostage situation. The perpetrator was shot by police, arrested and served time, but died violently in prison. A biographical sketch of the scene determines who was there, what happened, and how the other characters will contribute to the story. You might decide a relative of the perpetrator was an accomplice during the hostage situation, was not caught, and seeks revenge on the protagonist.

From the time a person is born (the birth itself might be a memorable event) they meet people, go to school, fall in (and perhaps out) of love, experience death, travel to faraway places, and work a variety of jobs, all of which will not only provide ideas for an entertaining story but reduce the odds of the invasion of writer’s block.

My Author website:

http://jstrandburg.wordpress.com

Order Hustle Henry and the Cue-Ball Kid here:

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Order An Appointment With God: One Ordinary Man’s Journey to Faith Through Prayer here:

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