Monday, November 14, 2011

Getting into Character

One of the most common questions I'm asked by aspiring authors is what I recommend they do to get started on their first books. Should they do a thorough outline? Should they develop the overall concept and start writing right away, allowing the creative energy to guide the story? Should they make an offering to the Muses?

While I can't say any of the above would hurt (I hear the Muses really like homemade brownies), I've found what works best for me at the beginning of any writing project is creating thorough character sketches for each of the main characters. In the course of learning about my characters, I learn what direction to take with the story. In fact, I find that the more detail I put into the sketches, the easier it is for the characters to tell their own stories.

What should a character sketch look like, you ask? In all honesty, I have no idea if there's a "standard" for this particular exercise. I like to include a variety of details about each character, even if those details don't ever make it into the story. In my mind, if I know enough about the characters to make them seem real to me, I can more effectively make them real for my readers.

I'd like to share something with you that I never thought would be released for public viewing: the character sketch that I created for Amber Hopkins, the protagonist of Becoming (Book One of the Daughters of Saraqael trilogy). Amber is the character whose story rested in my mind for a number of months before the concept behind the Daughters trilogy came together, so her sketch was the first I ever created. I've edited it a bit from the original sketch so that it doesn't include any spoilers for those who haven't read the books, but this will give you an idea of what I do:

  • First-born
  • Human name: Amber Hopkins
  • Brown hair, amber eyes, overall average “Girl Next Door” appearance
  • Dresses mostly in T-shirts and jeans
  • Plays guitar; likes The Beatles, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Bush, Foo Fighters, Nickelback
  • Hates math; loves geology (especially mineralogy) and music; athletic enough to do well in sports but doesn’t like playing on teams; average student with very few friends (none close); enjoys kickboxing, karate, track
  • Raised in the foster care system from birth; told her mother was drug-addicted and her father abandoned her; moved every three years (age three, age six, age nine, and age twelve) due to strange occurrences on or around each birthday. Finally arrived in the home of Clara Burke, an older foster mother with incredible patience and an open mind.
  • Very close to her foster “brother” of the same age, Gabriel Reid.
  • Sarcastic and cynical
  • Shares a used/refurbished black 1984 Nissan 300ZX with Gabriel (bought it together, he did the work on it)
  • Works at a local superstore (like Sam’s Club, Costco, etc.)
  • Lives in Coweta County, GA because the United States has only limited quantities of amber, limiting the likelihood of her powers unexpectedly “erupting.”
  • Significance of her name: Oldest known amber is dated 345 million years ago (thus, utterly ancient); can be found buried deep within the earth; oldest and hardest amber comes from the mountains of Santiago in the Dominican Republic; properties of light, warmth, solar energies, clarification, healing; amber is known to develop an electric charge when rubbed; in the mythology of Greece, amber was created when Phaeton (son of the Sun God, Helios) was struck and killed by lightning and the grief of his sisters was so great that it turned them into poplar trees, their tears turning into drops of amber.
  • When she “becomes”, she has the ability to use her remarkable strength to both injure and heal. Her main vehicle of power will be a sword, hilt tipped in amber.
So, there it is...(most of) the first character sketch I ever attempted and the model from which I've based all others. For those of you who have read the books, you'll note that some of these details are never mentioned...but they make sense, right? I believe the key to a successful character sketch is developing it enough that you can stay true to the character's voice in your writing.

If you're looking to start your first book or you're trying to develop the concept for your next one and you haven't yet tried creating a character sketch, I encourage you to do so. You may surprise yourself! And if that doesn't work, well, there's always the brownies.

What tips do you have for aspiring authors to help them start their first books?


  1. Hi Raine - That is great advice! I too use a family tree for my characters, it is easier to keep up with everyone and their abilities.

    Brownies and cupcakes are a must. I know car salesmen throw pennies into the lot to pay homage to the Lot Gods - I wonder if I should throw books at my laptop? Hmmmmm

  2. Very cool, Raine. My muses like coffee and chocolate.

    I don't plot much, I come up with general ideas and let my characters take control. Interesting though, I start keeping "trait" charts AFTER writing. ;-)

  3. Thanks for the comments, Devyn and Krystal! Funny how our Muses like their sweets, eh? ;)

  4. I love this post, Raine. I'm obsessed with character backstory and often wonder what their life was like before I met them.

    Very cool history about the origin of Amber. Amber/Ambryl certainly lives up to the properties of her name.

  5. Thanks so much, Janice! It's great to get feedback from someone who has read the book and understands Amber's character. :) Appreciate you stopping by and commenting!

  6. This is a great post! I definitely agree with you about doing a character sketch.

    My first thing is usually to come up with character names, and then a title for the book. Once I have those, I like to delve deeper into the plot, and how it will affect each character. After that, I usually start writing, and make sure everything is pieced together in the editing. :)


    Enter my Giveaway:

  7. I've actually never started a novel with a character sketch or plot outline. I usually have a spark of inspiration for an idea, and I write and write that idea until its run dry in my imagination. From there, I do a lot of heavy contemplation on who and what is going on. The overall theme and journey is usually developing itself as I think and write, but hasn't bloomed until half way through the story, and then I go, "Oh my gosh, this is it!" and I know the climax and ending. Yes, I have to go back and flesh out a lot of scenes and characters, but that's the fun part to me. The first draft is the sketch, after all.

    Great post!

  8. Thanks for the feedback, Alexandra! It's interesting that you come up with the book title so early in. I know some other authors who do the same. I actually wait until the book is complete before titling's among the hardest things for me to do! :)