Monday 25 July 2011

Am I rubbish at this?

I've just seen an interesting blog post on 'which is the most important aspect of a novel?' Personally, I'd say the question is meaningless. Character and dialogue, for instance, can't be separated - you develop a character through what they do and say. Setting? How could setting ever be most important? You could write some dreary old crap, even if you set it an exotic Inca court where everyone ate parrot kebabs with the feathers still on from golden skewers. Setting must either be absolutely integral - the story couldn't take place anywhere else - or it's window dressing. Everything has to happen somewhere. (Doesn't it? Could I write a story set nowhere?)

The blogger's answer is 'character'. The post links to the author's Character Chart, which opens in Word and is so exhaustive I think I'll retire now I've read it. I'm not a great one for planning at the best of times, but I really don't need to know the date of my character's grandmother's birthday in order to write consistently. Really, I don't. And as for preferred home decor style, whether they have ever been fined, and their favourite board game - huh? Am I doing it all wrong? The characters come into my head and I watch them do things. Then I write it down. They are like real people. I can tell what real people are like even if I don't know when their grandmother was born or whether they wear contact lenses.

I have a serious suspicion that answering questionnaires about your characters is a displacement activity - it's easier than actually writing the story.  And knowing the answers doesn't help you write the story. It is not knowing your character is an Asian psychopath with a liking for poodles that counts, it's being able to build an an Asian psychopath with a liking for poodles from nothing but words. That's the hard bit.

Seriously, though. Do you do all this stuff? I often have pictures of my characters, and perhaps a page of notes on them - but sometimes not. Sometimes I have nothing except what is in my head. How do you do it?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hi 'Stroppy Author,' and thanks for checking out my blog!
    I know the Character Chart is lengthy and inclusive. But, I also know that for some people (like me), having a lot of detail about the characters helps. When I wrote my first book, it was 'seat of the pants' writing (I didn't know any better) - I simply opened up a new page in Word and started writing. As I got into the story, I realized I was spending a great deal of time back-tracking for details already written, so I started a character chart, jotting details as I went along. It was crude, at best, so, I did some research and put this version together. No one has to use all that information! It depends on the genre, primarily. It's fully customizable and if that means eliminating a lot of the detail, well, it's yours to do with as you wish. No one is forcing you to use it at all! But, many others have found it very useful!
    Thanks to my character charts, my main characters are very real to me. They are like old friends. In fact, I 'interviewed' my two main characters. If you'd like to see that, it's a 6-part posting that took place in May and June on my blog (see the archives at for 'The Interview, Part x'). Not available to the public is the 'family tree' I made for the two main characters that covers eight-hundred years! It's not highly detailed, but the names and birth years are there! When you're dealing with time travel, you need to be prepared for a visit at any time . . .
    Oh, I'd be interested in knowing what 'Creative' had to say before you removed his/her comment. And, will THIS comment survive your criterion?
    Have a great day,

  3. Hi Julie

    I didn't remove Creative's post, so they removed it themselves. I don't remove anything except spam. (When it says removed by the author, it means the author of the post, not the blog.)

    I'm glad you came by, Julie - I couldn't see who you were from your blog, which is why I didn't give your name. (Admittedly, I was writing quickly, around a sickly child, so that doesn't necessarily mean it's hard to find out.)

    I realise your chart if customisable and obviously no-one has to fill it all in - but I was astonished at the level of detail. I can see that if you are dealing in time travel you would need a very detailed family tree, and that sounds fascinating. I think it's really interesting how some people do lots and lots of planning and some do virtually none. I do lots of research - time, place, and all kinds of background - but the characters reveal themselves in their own time. I know I can engage in displacement activity (which it is for me - clearly not for everyone) by wondering about them out of context but I know it doesn't get me anywhere nearer the hard bit of actually making them live as characters. If that works for you - brilliant. I'm just quite astounded by it!

    Isn't it strange how we all work so differently? Yet, it does seem to work in all those different ways. Fortunately!

    Best wishes :-)

  4. Hi Julie

    Of course, your name is right at the top - sorry! I have retrieved Creative's comment from email and it is not remotely contentious, so no idea why he/she deleted it

  5. Sarah Duncan recently blogged about this. ( She agrees with you. And so do I. I get to know my characters by writing about them. I don't know everything about people I know. (In fact, I would hate to) so why do we have to know everything about my characters in order to be able to write about them? don't know everything about my husband (thank goodness) and I've lived with him for over 30 years.

  6. Thank you, Sally. I do read Sarah's blog, but I'd missed this one. She says it better than I do, so everyone should go and read this!

    "Getting a group of students to fill in a data sheet and then read them out cheerfully fills at least half an hour of teaching time - you could probably stretch it out to an hour at a push." Absolutely.

  7. I personally don't believe that any element of a novel is necessarily any more important than any other. Depending on the topic/genre, the characters might be most important (as in romance), the setting might be important (hard sci-fi), the metaphors and issues (Jodi Picoult), the plot (blockbusters like Da Vinci Code), or the style (any suspense or horror story, ala Stephen King) - I'm sure there are books that rely most heavily upon other elements as well.

    My books are equally plot/character focused, but I never had more than broad brush strokes for my characters mapped out. I barely knew what they looked like, and I certainly had no idea about their mysterious pasts.

    Words cannot describe the feeling you get when you realise what your character was up to in those lost years of their life, and how it has come back to haunt them now... I think that you can't write a meaningful reveal scene unless you're channelling some of that surprise yourself.

    Additionally, I think the only people who need to know what board game their characters enjoy are people who write like Jodi Picoult, who would actually go ahead and incorporate every bit of information in that chart into the novel to pad it out.

    At any rate, it's not for me, but hey - if it works for someone else, who am I to judge? :)

  8. Like you I write my characters from my head without interviewing them first. Its instinctive and their behaviour and reactions to situations have to be true and consistent and I don't know where that comes from except my own subconscious. I feel lucky I can do it like this tho'. And I do suggest to other writers that getting to know a bit more about their main character can help them with their plotting and characterisation if this is something they are struggling with

  9. I've always felt a bit guilty not having thick card index files on my desk, full of character details. So glad I'm not alone!