Wonder Boi Writes

Character Studies – Weekend Play

I’m officially finished with my self edits (thank G-d).  I’ve now made several major passes through my latest manuscript, working on everything from character development and voice to clichés and overused words.  It’s been a big time energy drain, but this type of editing is essential to ensuring a strong proposal.  Plus the more work I do now, the less my editor and I will have to do later.  Now my baby is in the very capable hands of my wife (Susan Spangler, Ph.D.) who’s copy editing.

So I’m all done, right?  Wrong.  I can’t just send in a manuscript and say “Publish it.”  I have to write up a formal proposal with a summary, a plot synopsis, and character studies.  This week I focused on my character studies.  If you’re not familiar with the concept of the character study, you can Google the phrase and you’ll no doubt find thousands of them.  All authors have their own style and method for character studies, but basically they’re a tool writers use to ensure their characters are fully developed, dynamic, and consistent.  Character studies use basics information like the character’s looks, personality, likes, and dislikes to get a good picture of who each character is. They also dig deeper to ask what a character needs, what she fears, what she’s going to have to let go of in order to make a relationship work.

Bold Strokes Books has a standard series of questions they want answered in a character study, and I’d imagine other publishers do too, but I also have a list of questions I ask that get more specific than the general questions.  I’ve also added to that list this year based on suggestions from friend and fellow writer Georgia Beers.  In this novel I didn’t just ask what my character’s favorite color was, I also asked what her least favorite color was, and more importantly why.  (Answer: Ren doesn’t like light colors because she spends a lot of time trying to convince people she’s strong. She doesn’t want her clothes to undercut her hard work by softening her appearance.)  I also give each character a theme song.  When I’m having a hard time focusing, I play that songs to help me get into my character’s mind set.

You may be asking yourself, why are you doing a character development after you wrote the novel?  That’s a great question and one my editor would  ask as well, and the answer is, my character studies are constantly evolving.   I generally start about a chapter into the book  because I like to give my characters some space to tell me a little bit in their own voice.  At that point I have a good idea about what the character looks like, what she does for a living, and at least a few key personality points.  Another chapter or two in, I  understand her major conflict, her shortcomings, her insecurities.  Still further in, I see how she’s growing as she starts to fall in love and what aspects of the character are stubbornly refusing to change, but sometimes I don’t know their final status until I write the last chapter.  Finally, I have to polish the character study. When I’m writing for myself my character study may be a big list of notes and random details, but when I send it off, it has to make sense to other people, so I have to convert it into a coherent narrative.

The purpose of the character study changes as the writing/publishing process does. First, the character study is a way  to get to know my character so I’ll understand how she should act or react in any situation.  Later, I use it to keep the character consistent as she moves toward commitment and changes through love. I need to make sure her core remains the same. I can’t turn her into someone else. When I send the proposal to my publisher, she will use the character study to gauge the likability of the characters (they do have to sell, after all) as well as to determine how well I’ve represented the character throughout my novel – there shouldn’t be a disconnect between the character study and the actual character.  Finally, my editor uses the character study to orient herself to my characters.  Editors have to share an author’s vision, and we don’t share a brain, so the more details I put in my character study, the easier it’ll be for my editor to know the character as well as I do.  That in turn helps her point out things that I’ve missed while keeping her from suggesting something that I find inconsistent with the character.

It’s a lot of work to write strong, well-developed character studies.  It can be frustrating and at times seems tedious, but when it comes down to it, the character study is one of the most important tools for a writer, publisher, and editor who all want to produce a top-notch novel.

But just because it’s important doesn’t make it fun. I’m glad I’m done, and I think the weekend play showcases my feeling about the work I put in this week. 😉  “It’s killing me, but then again it’s keeping me alive.”


March 19, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. Rachel, thanks for the helpful words. After reading it, I suggested my writing partners share a character study of the secondary protagonist at our next confab. (I realized I didn’t know my nurse’s maiden name-whoops)
    If possible, would you be willing to share one of your character studies for ideas?
    Feel free to use my email or FB address.

    Comment by Jeanne | April 2, 2010 | Reply

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