Question for Great Tea Debaclers: When Do You Know Your Characters?

This month has been quite a learning experience for me, and we’re not even ten days into it. In that time, I’ve been writing with a fury and passion that I’ve never attempted before, and some interesting items have been poked from the fires.

One in particular is that I didn’t know my characters well for over 50k words. I’m aware that this can be regarded as a sign of weakness. Trust me, I had worked out paths for them, and basic characteristics, and even goals and drive. I even had a little character growth chart for the main two characters.

Then, around Chapter 13, I realized my plans had defenestrated, and the characters emerging from my story as it whipped along were not quite the same people I had initially laid out. Cracks and twists appeared in them that I had not intended, and the plot took off for parts unknown, safely landing in Chapter 17, but not without a lot of collateral damage to the original outline.

So I didn’t know my characters for about 17 chapters, and only on the rewrite will I be able to make cohesive their individual paths and journeys.

Is that a bad thing?

I don’t know. Probably more an inexperienced thing.

Kind of thrilling though.

What about you?

9 thoughts on “Question for Great Tea Debaclers: When Do You Know Your Characters?

  1. I have been very lucky in the series I’m working on (for which Book 3 and potentially Book 4 will be done durig NaNo), in that the characters took over by page 3 of the first book and have never let go. The story’s gotten out of hand twice. Both times, I let it, re-read what was down there, cut it, and moved right back on with it. The muse, who I’ve been calling Master WIP for a couple of months now, shares plot twists with me as we go, and sometimes answers my direct questions, sometimes not. I feel like I’m channeling this from my hindbrain, and I’m thrilled, both with the process and with the output and final product. For me, I’ve found that when I just let go and let it flow, at least 8 times out of 10 it’s better than my original plan. Of course, I don’t outline, either, and I keep all my character’s lives in my head or on the pages of the story. I do have some where I have stuff written out, but usually for ideas that aren’t going to be “active” for a while.I HAVE mentioned that I’m sort of a manic writer, right? No depressive, just lots and lots of manic. :-DEnjoy the process — you’re doing GREAT and just think…now you KNOW you can do it, and do it fast and well. There is no going back or stopping after you reach that level.Jeanne

  2. Here is what I know about Johnny Gardner, what I knew about him when I started The Nondescript:A young man named Johnny joins a carnival in disguise as a bearded woman and, on his travels, he finds his true love.That’s all I had. I had some idea of the sort of characters I wanted to meet along the way (the owner of the carnival; the girl he falls in love with; Johnny’s dad; a friend of his; the FBI age) but I don’t know much of anything about these people, and I probably won’t until I meet them.That’s okay with me. That’s how this novel works, and I think that’s how I write (and I’m just learning that. No wonder I’ve been miserable all year. I have it figured out now)With my Rome novel, they had back histories and stories and pasts, because I was trying to figure out my world, my characters, everything. They changed as the story progressed, some for good, some for nothing-very-much, and it sucked.I like my Nondescript characters. For example, I wasn’t 100% clear on why Johnny joined the carnival. I knew the event which led him that way, but I didn’t know HIM or why he did it. I found out, ten words into meeting him, having met his father and his hometown first. I see, and I delight in it.I have some plot pieces along the path of this novel, some stories I want to tell and places I want to hit, but nothing’s set. Mostly, I’m curious to see what happens when these people show up in the set pieces I’ve laid out for them.

  3. I usually know my MC fairly well by the end of the first chapter. I figured Aleira out within the first couple of pages in Terella, but that was only because I had to know her if I was to move the plot along. The secondary characters, three of whom are extremely important, have a more gradual unfolding process as I move through the story. But then again, my plots are driven by the characters until a specific crisis point in the story when the plot takes over–or at least that’s how I’ve written in the past and appear to be writing now.Just keep churning it out: when you go back to do rewrites you’ll know your characters better and can adjust as you move on.

  4. Usually, I know my characters fairly well before I start writing, but I continue to get to know them throughout the novel. For me, it’s very similar to how I get to know flesh and blood people. The characters and I have to be fairly comfortable with one another before we can let our guards down enough to start the book, but there continue to be revelations and new understandings throughout the course of our collaboration.

  5. Hi all! Thanks for your comments! :D (I welcome more of course from anybody else!)Jeanne, I think I have learned to nuke the outline as well. Or at least, prepare it just a little bit ahead of time. I don’t improvise as well as you do :) but I think in the future I’ll go with that approach more and more, as I start to understand storytelling better.Pete, what will you do when you get back to Rome? Actually, no don’t think about that if it’s going to distract you from right now. I hope your experiment goes as well as mine is. Or better! :)Celina, I’ll keep churning. Getting stuck is the last thing I can afford to do right now–GTD or no, NaNo or no. I know well enough that if I stop now, I will stay stopped. That’s what happened to every other attempt at a novel for me.Lori, yes, it’s a little bit more like that. I get to know facets of my characters, I suppose. But do you get contradictions? My main character is supposed to be Good Guy Sympathetic, but he’s just… made a decision, late in the book, that will kill some of that sympathy. It worries me so. Bad MC. But I have to fly with it, because I don’t know how else to.When I finish the first book, I’ll write a blog entry on what I learned. Which is a LOT. There’s a lot to be said for getting experience out in the field, as it were….

  6. What will I do when I get back to Rome?Start from the ground up. As it stands, it is the novel of a man writing 9 months ago, and I am not him any longer, which is as it should be. There are too many flaws, and too much discomfort. I know how to write it again and I will, when I’ve had time and distance between myself and the novel.Forward motion, ever forward. That’s the only way to get anywhere, after all. :)

  7. Ah, so total rewrite.Sometimes one has to go back and go forwards again. :):ponders the points of her eventual What I Learned During My First Real Novel Draft EVER post::goes to write:

  8. I started with six one sentence descriptions, and from there I’ve been building my knowledge. I don’t know any of them really well, but around the 10k mark, we’ve started getting really familiar.My characters usually grow in my head when I’m not thinking about it.

  9. That’s awesome, Tori! I wish I had that kind of connection with my characters. However, I am shy, so I guess my characters (even the psychopath…) are shy too.

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