Tuesday, February 05, 2013

The Quick Start Plan for Characters

My biggest source of writer laziness is character development. I'm sorry, I just find it painfully boring to hash out all the details of my protagonist's life from birth to the point where he's falling from an airplane at the opening of my novel. I know I know, it's important to develop my characters. Otherwise, how will they know what to do when presented with obstacles?

So I use something I discovered in Weight Watchers--the quick start plan. For those of you in the know, WW gets you going in your first week by planning out your meals for absolute minimum calorie intake. It's bare bones. The goal, or course, is to get you to shed a few pounds while you're still hot with the program. By week 8, you're ready beat up your leader in the parking lot, take her money, and go out to buy as many boxes of Thin Mints as your car can carry. So the Quick Start plan is a way of at least getting you off the ground early.

I use the same method with a new novel. I just dive in. Bare bones. Start writing just to see if the plot I have in mind has teeth. My protagonist isn't much more than words on paper, a name and maybe a hair color. I've got him getting into the trouble that will blossom into a full-fledged plot, having a few discussions in his two-dimensional midwestern tone, and see where things go.

Somewhere around page 50...yes, page 50, I stop and look things over. Is the plot holding my interest? Is it feasible (when the supernatural is involved, this gets tricky)? Can I wrap this up in less than 800 pages?

If the answer is "yes" to all those questions, I grab a notebook and start giving my protagonist flesh. Then my antagonist and cast of support characters.

Yes, 50 pages is a lot of writing if I decide to scrap the idea, and I have scrapped a few. But a lunchtime novelist needs to get writing on paper. Not character development for two weeks before we begin. Maybe some of you can do that, but it would make me crazy to write character sheets for a month and then decide it won't work. That's a month of no writing. I suppose the blogs count, but fiction is different.

Occasionally, rarely for me, I'll have a character in mind before I begin. I envy those people who can build an entire life in their heads while mowing the lawn. I could barely describe my own life in one-hundred thousand words or less. Of course, that's probably a good clue as to why we shouldn't shoot for too much detail in our fictional characters. We're way too complex. And our character today is not the same character we were twenty years ago.

I understand now why series are so popular. You only have to develop your protag once, maybe adding a bit as you go along. Perhaps I'm not the only one who struggles with character development. If Tom Clancy had to keep Jack Ryan going for decades, why should I expect to do any better?

So how abut you? At what point to you build your characters?

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