31 January 2015

Research 3: The Novel's Bible - Characters

In my post Research 2 about creating a hyperlinked Research bible, I mentioned in passing Character Sheets. This post goes into more detail.

When I first started writing (in days of yore) I followed the given wisdom to complete a sheet for each main character in the style of what I can only describe as a Police 'missing person' form: age, height, weight, colour of hair and eyes, any distinguishing features... you get the idea. Basically it's looking at a photograph.

But this isn't what characters are. Characters are fears and motivations and goals; characters are about the previous experiences that have marked or buoyed their earlier years and so fuel their thinking now. They are about what makes them tick, their moral compasses, what would tip them into doing something dastardly or ultra worthy. What they look like hardly comes into it.

By the time I am setting a character onto paper, even if in draft form without a name, there has already been a lot of work done on the storyline, so I have a rough idea of age and gender. I walk about with the person a lot, take him/her on trips to the shops or drives in the car, until the character starts taking on a cloudy bulk that can shrug or give a tone of voice, if not actual words. Then I'll sit and write an overview - his/her Mission Statement. Sometimes the character laughs and I start again, but usually from this his/her inner make-up starts to coalesce. There still might be no name, but his/her Sheet is copied into the bible and a hyperlink is formed from the front index to the character's page.

As general research is added to the whole, character sheets are bulked: work, transport, tidiness (or not), mode of speech. Relationships are noted, past relationships are noted. But oddly enough, not features.

When the writing starts and these characters tentatively move around their world, it is then that individual Character Sheets become individual Continuity Sheets. He feels peckish and reaches for... a pie, a chocolate bar, a piece of fruit. This information goes on to his sheet. She needs to buy a cardigan and... which shop, which colour, which type, goes on to her sheet - always with the adjunct why? It is the why does she choose that colour, why does he reach for a banana that adds psychological depth to the character. Only when he combs his hair with his fingers do I know how long it is, its texture. 

How characters feel about themselves is more important than how they look. I leave physical perceptions to other characters to note - and then I write it on the character's sheet. Reading fiction where characters change their age, or eye-colour, or even name, wrecks the suspension of disbelief. For me, it bins the book.

I wouldn't be without Character Continuity sheets. If you write, do you use something similar?

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