Last month, I discussed writing a book’s abstract, a sort of premature “book blurb” to help you keep both interested and focused on the most important aspect of any novel project: the plot. For many of us, however, the plot is one of the hardest things to develop, and so is best cultivated by exploring the characters and the setting within which it will take place. So today, I’m going to be expanding on the sections of my plotting worksheet. Specifically, I’ll be focusing on the character aspect of it.
Before I get too far, I should note that you don’t have to stick to any particular order of development at this juncture. Once the abstract is finished, you can go as shallow or in-depth as you please with the characters, the setting, and/or the plot points. It’s easy with the format to go back and forth, adding information to any section as you learn more about your novel and its world and setting, so that you can add and subtract until you feel like you know enough about it to consider that particular section “finished.”
Main Character Quick Sketches
To kick off the character development stage, we take the main characters from the abstract and write the most important, plot-relevant information. Give them a name, if they don’t have one already. Then: Are they human or some sort of mythic/alien creature? Are they good warriors? Good spies? Good diplomats? If you can throw in a general physical description, go for it, though I don’t find these particularly useful.
I have a habit of doing these in bullet points, keeping the information into a compact two to three sentences. You’ll have time and opportunity to develop them more later. Or even now, if you desire, but anything that gets more specific should be placed in the Character Info section, which I’ll discuss in a minute. Basically, this is supposed to define their role in the plot, and what it is about their character that makes them good for the job.
Side Character List
You may have a few names (or, at the very least, a few character roles) regarding characters who have a job to do in the plot but are not main characters. This is going to be your place to keep track of them all. How in-depth you make this is utterly up to you, but I’d highly recommend that anyone who is important enough to get their name on a page should wind up on this chart. It will just help you keep track of all the moving parts.
I put this list together via table, finding it most convenient for me to have two cells dedicated to any one character. Left cell: either the character’s name or some letter or number system to make it easy to Find+Replace once you do settle on a name for that character. Right cell: who that character is. Considering the fact that these are only side characters, you should hopefully be able to get away with anywhere from a one to five word descriptor. Anything longer may make the table look clunky (and the visual organization of the document is part of the reason that I find this technique to work so well for me), but if you need to write down more on each character than that, go for it.
I should add, also, that the reason I say “two cells” instead of “one row” is twofold. First, again, the aesthetic principle. If you have one name per line, that table is going to get pretty long pretty fast, and it’ll take some scrolling to get down to the more important, lower chunks of the document. The second is that there’s a good chance the characters will need organizing in some shape or form anyway, whether because of timing, location, or perhaps even species. If that’s the case, you may wind up with two or three pairs, whatever, of columns.
If footnotes are your thing (and I do enjoy using them if it makes the rest of the document look more concise), you can expand on each character as necessary by using your footnote features. That way, the table remains uncluttered, but all the information you need is still readily available.
This is where you’re going to get really in-depth for your characters. You’re going to be telling their story, so it’s important to know what’s driving them, what sorts of important memories they may have, etc. I’d start off with family members, perhaps including a general statement about the status of the MC’s relationship to those members. (Who are they close to, and who might they be estranged from?) Figure out their age, and what skills they have acquired. Certainly, know their moral code. What rules will they break, and which ones will they stand firm on, no matter what?
I’d suggest this be structured in paragraph form, though your information can certainly be in sentence fragments. Maybe two paragraphs or so should do the trick. Any more, and you risk getting swept away in the character’s whole life, rather than the most important part of it: the part that is encapsulated by the novel. Besides, there’s really only so much you can figure out about a character in the pre-drafting stage. You need to leave some room for discovery, because you’ll figure out a lot about your characters once they actually are allowed to start acting.
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From your reading and writing experience, how many main characters can a book have before you would consider there to be “too many?” What about side characters?
I think a book can get away with two MCs, but any more than that, and your readers may forget what’s happening with one character by the time their PoV section roles back around. (Think the Game of Thrones books.) Besides, at some point, if you have too many MCs, some of them just read as PoV side characters anyway, and it’s best to let them settle back to the sidelines where they belong.