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Whether Planned or Spontaneous


How does your main character arrive? Does she pop into the mind, complete with secrets, aspirations, and whimsy? Or, do you have to sit down and get out your character building blocks to begin construction on the kind of character you want to deal with for however long it takes you to write an entire story?

Each type of character has possibilities for the writer. Think of the yourself as a casting director. A movie is being planned inside your mind and needs a cast to people the sets that are built to show/tell the story.

Cast of Characters: Primary figures

  • Heroine—late twenties, had to leave college during junior year due to family crisis, didn’t finished education, works at local veterinarian’s office as a vet tech rather than the physician she wanted to be.
  • Male lead—perhaps late twenties/early thirties, civil engineer, rugged and cocky in looks and attitude, considers heroine interesting but not worth the trouble of getting to know better—he has secrets hiding behind his eyes.
  • Female support character—high school classmate, Miss Popularity, divorced socialite in town, waging intimacy war with male lead, has always looked down on heroine.
  • Villain—possible murderer, keeping police baffled and jumping through hoops as she/he kills off various townspeople for no apparent reason, leaves too many conflicting clues as if playing cat and mouse with cops.
  • Police detective—has known heroine all her life, used to date her in high school, pallbearer at her father’s funeral, struggling to stay in control of murder case even when he knows he’s over his head on this one, rethinking his career choice.
  • Setting—rural town, population 12,000, Midwest locale, farming and college town.

With this list of pivotal characters, you can begin to build both plot and character studies. You must decide which to pursue first. For our purposes here, concentrate on characters.

Building a character takes planning. How would you tackle the heroine? When you close your eyes and think about this character, what do you see? How tall is she? What kind of clothing does she typically wear? What color is her hair? Keep thinking about her. Write down what you envision about this person. Listen to her voice, her speech patterns, and her quirks of expression. Have you learned her name yet?

Take a moment to meet her. Shake her hand. Is it callused, soft, long and lean, or square and pudgy? Do you join her at a table at the local diner?

What kind of people are in the diner and what is their behavior like? Is there a feeling of camaraderie among the locals, one of friendship or tension? Do you feel comfortable within this group? If so, describe what you feel as you sit at the table with the heroine.

Do this ceremonial meet and greet with each of your new characters. Find your place among them. Develop a rapport with these people that you’ll be working with for a while in the future.

The story’s setting is a character as well. You noticed it on the casting list. Setting is the biggest and can be the most complex of your characters. Take the time to get familiar with it. Learn so much about it that you can taste the dust kicked up by the pick-up speeding down the county road on its way south. Close your eyes and feel the soft summer breeze on your bare arm as it slides by on a moist July night. Is that thunder in the west?

Spontaneity is a terrific starting place. If you wake up in the middle of the night with an image in your mind and a glimpse of a story behind it, you’re on your way to writing a story. The same type of vision can happen anywhere, at any time.

The construction work that follows that spontaneous burst of mental creation fleshes out the initial character image, takes it to a new depth and richness that brings the character to life for the reader. You can have the loveliest character in the literary world, but without the tiny flaws, the midnight kitchen sessions, or the mental confessions, indecision and questions, the character is, at most, only two-dimensional.

Without placing your characters in a place that feels real, they remain merely players on a stage with recognizable sets. Spontaneity gets the juices flowing, creates the spark that draws your interest, and emblazons the images for your use. The time you spend and construction work you do with those images, those feelings, are what carry you, the writer, through to a complete story; one that will hold the reader’s interest and cause them to catch her breath in anticipation.

Whether spontaneous sparks get you started at the keyboard or a planned and executed list of possible characters puts your butt in the chair, each mode has its place in writing. You can plan and build tight studies and scenarios all you want. When you get to the revision stage of the process, spontaneity will become your best friend.

The minute details that have been missing so far will pop out to explain the motives of a character in chapter five. A flash of insight will inform you how something happened so quickly in your plot. These are as important to the overall health of a story as your casting couch. Make good use of both planning and seat-of-your-pants writing techniques.


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