How To Write a Novel-Part 2: Character

pensive by _Zhang

image by _Zhang via Flickr

After spending the past week brainstorming ideas for my estranged sister story, I’ve hit a wall. I’ve come up with some possible ideas for this novel but nothing concrete. I need to know more about the characters. Who are they? What do they look like? What’s their backstory?

Knowing more about the characters will help me figure out the point of this story.

Character development is probably my favorite part of the story writing process. I usually start with figuring out the basics: General appearance, how old they are at the time of the story, occupation, marital status, do they have children, and who are the other family members.

After I have the basic character information, I’ll then write a biography starting from childhood and covering any major events that have happened up until the starting point of the story. These are usually three to five pages long, sometimes longer depending on the complexity of the character, where I let my mind wander and let the character tell their life story. The biography is where I learn the following details about my character:

  • What their life was like growing up – chaotic, idyllic, impoverished, etc.
  • Events that have influenced their choices in life.
  • Their relationships with others.
  • Their fears.
  • Their flaws.
  • Their secrets.
  • Their dreams.
  • Their disappointments in life.

It’s important to know what makes your characters tick. The biographical details you discover help to create believable and relatable characters. They also help with the plotting process. As you develop your story people, you’ll uncover what their goals are, both external and internal. This in turn helps you figure out what motivates them and what possible obstacles you can throw at them during the course of your story.

True-to-life characters have emotional baggage, and creating a character biography helps pinpoint what those issues are. That baggage will be a source of conflict, and conflict is what makes the story interesting. It keeps readers turning the page and coming back for more. And, as with most writers, keeping the reader engaged is my ultimate goal.

What methods do you use to develop your characters? Are you like me and try to figure them out during the planning process, or do you learn about them as you’re writing the story?


How To Write A Novel–Part 1: Theme

How To Write a Novel is an ongoing blog series chronicling one writer's journey to complete a finished novel. Part One: Theme.

Figuring out what I want to write has been a real struggle for me. Part of my problem has been getting caught up in the success of popular authors and wanting that success for myself. It’s only natural, of course. You think to yourself, hey if I write a book like that maybe I can get a book deal, too. Instead of focusing on what story I want to tell, I’ve been caught up in what I think might sell. And that’s the wrong way to go about writing a book—at least for me, anyway.

This past week I’ve been pondering over those questions from my last post and I came up with an idea for a story. It’s just a germ of an idea so far, one that’s still percolating in my mind, but one that I want to explore further. My gut is telling me to spend the bulk of my writing time fleshing this out, so I’m going to listen and do just that.

This particular story is about sisters, and the basic idea is this:

Two estranged sisters who haven’t spoken in years will be forced to be in each other’s lives for some reason.

At this point, the reason for their reunion is not clear. Neither is the reason for the estrangement. I know this will be a story about squabbling sisters and the juicy conflict that goes along with that, but important questions keep popping into my mind.

What’s the point of this particular story and why should I tell it?

That’s where theme comes into play. Most, if not all stories have a theme. Some even have more than one. The main theme of any romance novel is love conquers all, a mystery story—justice must prevail, and horror—good versus evil. A theme can be an idea that you want to explore or a question you want answered.

Coming up with a theme for your story isn’t hard or complex. It’s pretty easy, actually. If you go back to last week’s post and answer the following questions:

  • What are you passionate about?
  • What answers are you searching for right now?
  • What unresolved issues do you have?

The answers to these questions will give you a list of themes you can inject into your stories. The best part is they won’t be generic like love conquers all. Those answers will be unique to you and your life experiences, enabling you to put a fresh perspective on what may seem like a recurring theme that’s been done a million times. Your personal take on the ideas you come up with is what will drive you to write a story that matters to both you and your reader.

For my sister story, I’ve come up with a few themes I want to explore: Betrayal, forgiveness, secrets, moving on from the past, new beginnings. I’m going to spend the next few days brainstorming to come up with some fresh ideas on these common themes. After I have a more concrete idea then I’ll move onto the next step of crafting my story–assembling the cast of characters.

This blog post is the first in a new series called How To Write a Novel. I’m no expert on the subject of novel writing, but my goal is to finally complete a novel. This series is not a how-to series per se, but simply a chronicle of how I progress from idea to finished novel.

Feel free to follow along and post your thoughts on the novel writing process in the comments below.



Seven Questions That Will Fuel Your Writing


Stuck in a writing rut? Answering these seven questions might just get you unstuck.

Are you stuck in a writing rut?

Does the following scenario apply to you? You sit down at your desk. You’re all geared up to write, pen in hand or fingers poised over your keyboard, and the only thought that comes to mind is: I have no fucking clue what I want to say. Or better yet: What the fuck is the point of this story?

It applies to me. A lot more than I’d care to admit. In fact, right now I’m struggling with this very issue. For months, I’ve been flip flopping between whether I want to write a romance novel or a mystery. I started the romance, hated it, so I switched gears and started working on a mystery idea that I’d outlined a while back. Now, I’m questioning whether I want to write this story. I’m not feeling it and I don’t know why. What I do know is that my gut is sending signals to my brain telling me to step away from this project.

If you find yourself stuck in rut like me, the following questions might help you get unstuck.

1. What are you most passionate about? Your passion could be anything from how to solve the global warming crisis to baking the perfect French macaron. Whatever floats your boat will also fuel your writing. Make a list of the causes, interests and hobbies you care most about and use that list as a springboard.

2. What scares you? Heights. Cockroaches. Nuclear war. The consequences of having an incompetent and unstable president. These are just a few of my fears. Make a list of anything and everything that scares the shit out of you.

3. What makes you angry? Set a timer for ten minutes and free write about everything that makes you mad. When you’re done, read over what you’ve written. List each thing that pisses you off and go into further detail of why these things make you angry.

4. What answers are you searching for right now? Enlightenment. Reinvention. A new career. The meaning of life. How to make your ass look great in jeans. Whether it’s superficial or existential, whatever you’re searching for might just propel you into a story.

5. What unresolved issues do you have? This is where you go deep and get personal. Just about everyone on the planet has some unfinished business. This could be something from childhood that you haven’t had the courage to face or it could be something that happened last week at work. No matter what that unresolved business is, see if you can infuse that into your writing somehow. Create a character with a similar issue and figure out if he or she can resolve the problem.

6. What if? The writer’s go-to question. What if your best friend is responsible for the death of your child? What if you find out your fiance is already married? What if you’re told you have 6 months to live? What if you’re accused of murdering your spouse? Playing the what if game is a fun way to come up with ideas.

7. Does what I’m writing matter to me? This is probably the most important question, and the answer should always be yes. If your answer is no, odds are the writing will be flat, the characters two-dimensional, and the story a boring piece of crap. In other words, a colossal waste of time for both you the writer and anyone who reads your work. Whether you’re writing romance, mystery, young adult, horror, etc., there needs to be a reason for the story. This could be a theme you’re passionate about, something that pisses you off, something that scares you, or an unresolved issue that you want to explore. If the story matters to you, then it will mean something to your readers.

The next time you find yourself in a rut, take a deep breath, grab your computer or a pen and your notebook and start answering some questions. You’ll eventually figure out what you want to write about and learn a few things about yourself in the process.