Writing Shortcuts: (Part 4) Characters

This is the fourth post in the Writing Shortcuts mini series where I discuss all the things I learned in the second draft that I wish I had known (and done right!) during the first draft of my current WIP. Check out post #1 and #2 (setting) and #3 (pacing) to catch up!

Apparently everyone in the world besides me knew about this handy little writing trick. Even the non-writers of the world (I polled a few, so it might be an unreliable sample) knew. And when I mentioned my mind-blowing, brilliant, life-changing writing idea to them, even the non-writers paused and stared at me like I was crazy. “. . .  you don’t already do that?” some asked. “Doesn’t every writer do that?” others asked, inevitably referencing some world-famous writer who had admitted to the practice in an interview/magazine article/memoir.

Apparently, this is obvious to the logical people of the world.

But in case some of you out there never had this idea occur to you before (like me) and (like me) just go at a manuscript and writewritewrite 50,000, 60,000, 70,000 words with no real character knowledge, just kind of expecting each word to get you a little closer to the character having life breathed into them, I have news for you:

Characters back stories are the most amazing thing in the world.

Character back stories are a get-to-know you opportunity. They’re generally only one or two pages long and in them they include first impression information (what you’d notice right away if you met them for the first time), self-introduction information (the quick-and-dirty sort of elevator speech every person has when introducing themselves to someone you want to get to know. Think back to how you introduced yourself to your college roommate), and the deep dark stuff you’d only pull out of someone past 2:00 am when you’re laying on a trampoline together, staring up at the stars, and talking about life.

These back story write-ups were inspired by MG/YA authors Kit Grindstaff and Jennifer Hubbard, who gave this great session at the NJ SCBWI conference back in April that completely rocked my world. It was about dirty little secrets. About how important it is to know those secret, dark things about each of your characters. Only once you understood them like that, could you then throw them on the page, like I had been blindly doing, and expect any magic to percolate.

After reading the first draft and giving the first few chapters to a critique partner, I knew one of the greatest weaknesses of the manuscript–and one I didn’t yet know how to fix–was the main character. She was the most important person in the book, by definition, especially because I was writing the book in first person, but she almost barely existed. She had no personality and was overshadowed by the much clearer secondary characters. I was having her do all these things and say all these words, but she was not a fleshed out person with flaws and feelings and fears, and it was really obvious that I just didn’t understand what made this character tick. What was her motivation? Her favorite things to do in her free time?

I came up with nada.

The other characters were also pretty flat, so I systematically began approaching each character with a homework assignment: each one had to have this entire form filled out completely and satisfactorily before I could dive into revisions.


[Full name, occupation]

Motivated by: [i.e., truth, justice, fear, guilt, secret crush, etc.]

Instant description words: [i.e., adventurous, devoted, controlling, bubbly, lone wolf, etc.]

Biggest mistake ever made in life: [usually a flashback memory scene to a regret]

Biggest obstacle: [The thing the character finds most challenging, the thing they’re constantly trying to work on. Example: needing to fit in, mending a frayed relationship with a loved one, getting over fear of heights]

Least likeable quality: [Flaws are so much more illuminating of a character than why I like them. This question helped me figure out that one character was meek to a fault, for example. If I had just focused on her likeable qualities, I would have had a pretty flat character who was friendly, polite, and a loyal friend. But with that meekness shining through, she has an added depth and becomes more real.]

These are the basic things I always answer. A lot of other stuff gets written down and crossed out and doodled, but these are the bare bones I need to understand every character’s personal history. I write these out by hand, so they’re pretty much a hot mess of scribbles in a notebook that only I can decipher.

It took me about two weeks to do a character sketch for each of the secondary characters. I learned a lot of things I didn’t know about each one. But I kept returning to that blank page for my main character. I’d jot down ideas, tid-bits of the main character’s history, anything to get to know her better.

After a few weeks and a lightbulb moment thanks to a brainstorming session with my sister, I finally finished her character sketch. I understood her. I got her. And it made revising her scenes, her dialogue, her actions, and writing new scenes for her so much easier. I was able to edit away all the crap in the first draft that, it was very clear to me now, was simply not this character’s MO. If only I had done these character sketches to begin with, before I ever started the first draft! Writing that entire first draft over the course of about four months didn’t help me get to know the characters better. I wandered through that world and through that plotline as lost as any of my characters. It wasn’t an effective method for me. The characters just foundered for pages upon pages and even when I wrote “The End,” I was still lost.

Lesson learned? Always write character sketches for each and every character before the first scene they appear in. It’ll help make them consistent and it’ll help the scenes write themselves. Now, off to squeeze in some character sketches to prepare for the secret NaNoWriMo project…!! I can’t wait to spend the month practicing writing a speedy and much better first-draft process! Join me?

Is Your Character a Vegetarian?

Having, I assume, culled through historical documentation of all sorts, somebody in the world has kept tabs on All the President’s Menus. Isn’t it amazing all the seemingly mundane details we can know about the past?

While reading through the list, comparing my favorite foods to those of past presidents, and upon occasion making fun of their taste buds–squirrel soup, really Garfield? And dear President Harrison, bouillon is not by any definition a food. It’s salty water, for goodness sake–I realized by the end of the article that I had really gotten a flavor–pardon the pun–for each president’s personality.

President Carter, for example, is pure Southern through and through: “Ham with redeye gravy, baked grits, cornbread, pork chops with cornbread stuffing, fried apples, red beans and rice, ham and cheese sandwiches, spicy spare ribs, collard greens, kale, okra, zucchini, butter beans, fried corn, and (of course) peanuts.”

President Lincoln, on the other hand, was a man of simple tastes: “Apples, coffee, bacon, milk, johnnycakes, honey, and chicken. ‘Mary Lincoln set a table at the White House, which included such food as aspic of tongue, pâté de foie Gras, turkey stuffed with truffles, and all sorts of wild game, such as venison, pheasant, or canvasback duck. But all too often the President merely picked at his food.’—Francois Rysavy, A Treasury of White House Cooking”

Not only did their favorite foods give a taste of their personality, their regional and childhood heritage, but it also gave a flavor for their historic setting. I remember hearing stories of my grandmother in the 1940s and 50s searching through the backyard for fresh dandelions for dandelion green salad, a food Teddy Roosevelt apparently favored, but which modern taste buds would more than likely revolt against.

“You want me to eat weeds?!”

John Adams’ craving for Plymouth succotash and Hoover’s taste for Oregon black cherries similarly gives historical context clues to exposure to and relationships with other cultures and the growing expansion of the nation’s states.

I’m not saying that we should detail every meal that our characters eat–the way Eat, Pray, Love dwells upon every food experience–or even make our character’s taste buds incredibly unique in their choices. But we should know everything about our characters and this is another layer worth knowing. Also, I think it might be a great way to characterize them. If someone is a vegetarian, for example, because they love animals too much, this fact speaks worlds about their personality! Also think of all the really interesting scenes this could develop in your book. How would they handle a meat-heavy Thanksgiving menu, hosted by the future in-laws? Or if someone grew up on a farm and now lives in NYC but still insists on eating foods only grown local. A picky eater might have a really abrasive and/or uncompromising personality and refuse to try new restaurants, new experiences, new things. It’s amazing how the way someone eats fleshes out their personality and their background. I can’t believe I never thought how important food in fiction was before!

Just for fun, what do my favorite foods tell you about me?

salmon, pork fried rice, Thai curry, stuffed green peppers, lasagna, French onion soup, brownies, sweet potato (in all forms; fries, pancakes, baked), oatmeal, stuffed crab bisque, gnocchi, asparagus, cherries, pork roll, crispy bacon, blueberry pancakes, walnuts, chicken cacciatore, tea, dark chocolate

What are your own favorite foods? List them below and you might be amazed at the character sketch it provides!

(Images #1,#2)