Archive for writing


Pacing Perception

At the end of last week, I’d reached the 1/4 of the book point, if this one is going to be the length my fantasy books usually are, and I felt like I’d only barely started to really get into the story. I wondered if the pacing was all off and this book was off to a slow start, so I reread what I’d written so far.

That reminded me that writing pace is not the same as reading pace. It had taken me weeks to write that much, and I read it in about an hour and a half—and that wasn’t even normal reading speed. I was trying not to edit as I read, but when you see a typo, you have to deal with it immediately because you might not notice it again. What feels slow as a writer because it takes you days or weeks to write may feel fast for a reader. In fact, I find that the fast-paced, action-packed scenes are the slowest to write.

I’m still not entirely sure what I think about this book. It reminds me of the meme showing a beautiful oil painting of a horse as “the book in my head” and a child’s stick-figure drawing of a horse as “the book when I try to write it.” The weird thing with this one is that the story is pretty much playing out according to what was in my head. The scenes are all there. And yet they’re somehow lacking. I think part of it is that the book in my head was like a movie trailer. I wasn’t necessarily seeing the whole scenes. I was seeing the highlights, the key moments. It skipped the parts that are necessary for getting to those moments or for getting from those moments to the next key moments.

Then there’s the fact that as I write, the book becomes even more vivid in my head, so there’s a huge disconnect with what I can put on the page. I’m bad about not getting much description in during the first draft, but even in a final draft it’s impossible to fully describe every little detail of what’s in my head. It would be a boring book if I did. The trick is figuring out exactly what needs to be described and finding ways to fit that in so that it’s not an obvious chunk of description, and even then, what’s on the page can never be as vivid as what’s in my head because it requires putting images and sensations into words.

This book is a bit different for me because it has multiple viewpoints, and each of those viewpoint characters has his or her own story. The stories will eventually meet up and mesh in the main plot, but I have to get them started separately and get them all to the main plot. If I were only dealing with one viewpoint character, like in most of my books, then the story would have moved a lot more quickly, and I’d be long past the point of the main character “crossing the threshold” into the main part of the story. But since I also have to set up the subplots with the other characters, it’s taking longer than I’m used to. I think that there’s some tension in seeing how those subplots are coming together to create a situation that’s going to hit the main character like a truck. We can see the disaster she’s heading for, but she has no idea when we’re just in her viewpoint, so it feels like her story is only just starting, but we know from seeing all the other stuff that she’s in for some trouble. I suspect this book may be a bit longer, as well.

And then there’s realizing what I’m writing. In my head, I saw it as epic fantasy, but it’s really more of a courtly intrigue and comedy of manners story. There aren’t any quests or battle scenes, just scheming and plotting and trying to cope with new situations. Part of my brain is going “this isn’t very exciting,” and I’m reminding myself that this isn’t an action-packed story.

I’m sure I’ll do some trimming in later drafts. There are some concepts I’ve had characters explain multiple times, since there are multiple people who need explanations, but the reader doesn’t need all those explanations, and I can maybe replace one or two with something like “he explained how it worked” and then move on. But then I’ll probably also be adding description and detail, so the length won’t change all that much.

writing, movies

Specific and Universal

I was surprised to see a criticism of the movie Turning Red that suggested it was too specific in its setting, that it would only appeal to the filmmaker and her friends, people of Asian descent who grew up in the early 2000s in Toronto.

I found that rather baffling because stories are supposed to be specific. The whole idea is to take something universal and put it into a specific place and time. I’m not of Chinese descent, was a pre-teen long before the early 2000s, and have never been to Toronto, and yet I related quite strongly to the characters in that movie. It reminded me so much of my seventh-grade year at a US Department of Defense school in Germany in the early 80s.

I have to wonder if this reviewer has ever seen any other Pixar movies. Last weekend, I watched the first two Toy Story movies. I am not a cowboy toy owned by a little boy, but I related to the fear of being replaced. That sort of experience comes up so often in life, like when your friends really seem to like the new kid in school and you worry you’ll lose them, when that new employee is so slick and cool that you’re worried your career is going to come to a screeching halt, when get a baby brother or sister and worry your parents will have less time for you. It’s a universal feeling put into a specific setting.

In fact, just about all stories are like that. You might be able to find a few things that are about someone exactly like you who’s experiencing something exactly like your life, but I’d think they’d be kind of boring. Why read or watch a story that’s basically about your life? We’re not space knights, superheroes, princesses, 1940s private detectives, or any of the other heroes that show up in fiction, but we can still find things about them that we can relate to.

That doesn’t mean, though, that not everyone needs to be represented or to see themselves in stories. Every so often it’s fun to find something that you relate to not only on a universal level, but also in something specific. I was in my 40s when the movie Brave came out, but it still gave me a huge thrill to see a curly-haired heroine—one who had real curly hair that acted like real curly hair, not like a straight-haired actress who’d had a curling iron waved in her general direction. Even better, she didn’t get a makeover in which she suddenly became beautiful when her hair was straightened. If that movie had existed when I was a kid, it would have had a huge impact on the way I saw myself. I think everyone needs to see themselves in stories at some point.

I suspect this writer thought the setting should have been more “universal,” like middle America. We need to get past the idea that white middle America is some kind of default that’s universal. It’s not, really. For one thing, which America? A town in the deep South isn’t the same as one in the northeast, and both are different from the midwest, which can vary depending on whether it’s north midwest or south midwest. There is no “universal” setting. I suppose the Toy Story movies do take place in some kind of generic suburban middle America, but since it’s seen through the eyes of toys, they have no real experience of the world outside Andy’s home so they have no idea where they are. Their specific world is Andy’s home.

When you try to have a generic setting with real people, you get a Hallmark Christmas movie, where they talk about the city without naming it and the small town may have a name, but you never know where this town actually is. The cars all have generic plates, if they show the license plates at all, so you can’t even tell what state they’re in. It’s just generic middle America, and it doesn’t seem like a real place. That’s the irony: the less specific you are about your setting, the less real it feels. You don’t find the universal emotions in the story when the setting feels fake. You’re more likely to relate to something in a specific setting that’s far from your personal experience because it feels more real.

This applies to made-up places, too. You need to make up a place that feels specific, like someone who grew up there could tell you exactly what it was like. Otherwise you get those generic quasi-medieval European-ish fantasy worlds.


Adjusting the Process

I’ve made a start on the new book. It was a little slower than I’d hoped to get going, but that was mostly because I made an abrupt change in plans just before I started writing.

I’m adding something new to my process with this book. I’m journaling the book as I write it. I’ve been journaling for a few years. I sit at the table after breakfast in the morning with a cup of tea and do a bit of a brain dump, just getting all those swirling thoughts out of my head. A few months ago, I read an article about how doing that in the evening helps with sleep, so I switched journaling times, and it did seem to help with those random thoughts that wake me up during the night. But I really like that time sitting at the table in the morning. It’s not so much procrastination as it is enjoying that time, but it was delaying my work day. I read another article about journaling your book, doing some freewriting by hand before you start your writing day, hashing out your thoughts about the book. I’ve been doing brainstorming that way, and then as I prepared to start writing, on Monday morning I journaled about the scene I was going to write.

It seems to have worked pretty well because I had a burst of insight. I had two events happening independently, but I realized that the event in the first scene should actually cause the event of the next scene, but then that involved reworking a couple of scenes and even cutting a planned scene. So I spent more than an hour working all that out before I sat down and got to work.

I’m having the usual feeling of the perfect, wonderful book in my head being like a child’s stick figure drawing once I start writing. I’ve had to go back and put in some things I’d planned and forgot. I’ll need to add more description and emotion, as usual. I can picture the settings, but I can’t seem to find places to really set the stage because I’m too focused on what the characters are doing and saying.

But I can do that in the next draft. Right now, I’m getting the action down, and it’s fun having all these insights that make the story stronger, even if they do require rethinking things. Just this morning, that journaling gave me the solution to a problem I was struggling with. I was trying to figure out who should be present for a scene. Either way, there were benefits but also potential problems, and the solution came to me as I wrote about my dilemma.


Ready to Begin

I think I’ve done about all the prep work I can possibly do, so on Monday I will start writing this book. It’s both exciting and scary. I’ve been thinking about this story for more than two years. I spent much of that time doing research reading and some brainstorming, then started the serious character and plot work around the beginning of this year. Now I think anything else I do will just be procrastination, and not the good kind that allows me to develop the story in more depth.

One way that I know it’s time to start writing is that I’ve been dreaming this story. I’ve had dreams in the past that give me ideas that fit into this book or this series, but the other night I was dreaming actual scenes that I’d already plotted. In some of the dream, I was seeing the “movie” and hearing the narration of the book, but in some of it I was one of the characters. I did try to insert an additional (and unnecessary) character in one of the dreams, but otherwise, it was right out of my notes.

Which means I know at least the first three scenes to write, so I should get off to a good start.

Today and this weekend I’m trying to get my life ready for it to get taken over by writing. I’m taking care of errands, getting groceries, doing housework and laundry, and I hope to make a couple of meals that will provide me with plenty of leftovers so I won’t have to do a lot of cooking. I’m bad about going all-or-nothing when I get into a book, so I get nothing else done while I’m writing. I’m going to try for a bit more work/life balance, but I want to take advantage of the surge of initial enthusiasm. I’m aiming for a relaxing and restful Sunday so I’ll be ready to dive in.

So, very soon I will actually meet these characters on the page as the story goes from thought to actual words. This is where those writing exercises to find the voice help because I’ve “met” the characters outside the text of the actual book, and that makes it a little less momentous to start writing them. Even so, writing those first words after all the preparation is a bit like standing at the top of a steep ski slope, ready to fling yourself down a mountain.


Putting it All Together

I’m in the “putting it all together” phase of my writing preparation. I’ve got the world built. I’ve got my major characters and their relationships to each other figured out. I’ve got the plot outlined, which has led to new characters being created. I’ve got a rough skeleton of possible scenes, with some more developed than others.

The main thing I need to do now is find the “voice” for this book. It’s going to have multiple viewpoints, so I think it will be written in third person, which is unusual for me. I love first person narration, but it just won’t work with this story. So I need to find the narrative voice for each character’s viewpoint. I do that by doing some freewriting exercises, just picking some random event that’s probably not going to end up in the book and writing how that scene might be told from that character’s perspective. I use scenes that won’t end up in the book so that I won’t feel stuck with that scene the way it is. I can play with style until I find what I like and then not have to worry about editing that scene to fit into the final story.

I also need to drill into specifics for the settings that I’m likely to need for the scenes I have planned. What, precisely, does it look like? What colors are there in these rooms, is there carpet on the floors, what does the place smell like, etc. Once I get started writing the story, I don’t think about these things, and I find the details are more likely to find their way in to the book if I’ve planned them in advance and worked them into my mental movie. When I haven’t pictured the settings, the scenes tend to take place in a void in my head, and it’s harder to figure out the details and add them later.

There’s going to be a lot of daydreaming this week because a lot of this comes from just imagining. I’m fine tuning my mental movie.

I’ll be doing more intense development of the first few scenes, too. I had a big breakthrough yesterday with the opening scene when I figured out what was really going on, and that turned the scene on its head and set up something great for later in the story. I love it when things like that happen.


Plotting and Structure

I’m still working on plotting, so I thought I’d talk a little more about the process there. Plotting is one of my weaknesses and always has been, so I have to work extra hard on it. My early attempts at writing all failed because I’d come up with characters and interesting situations for them to be in that were full of potential conflicts—and then had no idea where to go from there. I was good at coming up with people who could do things and situations in which things could happen, but couldn’t come up with actual, specific things to happen to create a story. Because my situations were so fleshed out, I thought that meant the story would be obvious and would come easily, and then I’d start writing, get about three chapters, and have no idea what should happen next.

Some people are lucky enough to be able to plot instinctively. They just start writing a scene, have it end with some kind of consequence that propels the action to the next scene, and so forth, and it all falls together. I am not that kind of writer. I need some kind of structure or framework to give me an idea for things that can happen, and from there I can fill in specific scenes.

There are a lot of story structure charts out there, and most of them boil down to different ways of saying the same thing (for Western/European culture-based storytelling—there are non-Western story structures that are very different). There’s the three-act structure, the story circle, the plot snowflake, Save the Cat, the Hero’s Journey, the Heroine’s Journey, and a bunch of others. Just about every writing book has its own story structure chart or worksheet that labels the different steps in a plot. Some are better suited or even designed for a certain kind of story. Some speak better to some writers than to others.

Which one do I use? All of them!

I do find that some structures work better with some stories, but it’s hard to tell which one will click into place until I try it. I have a binder full of these worksheets that I save from workshops or from notes I take while reading a book on writing, and when I’m plotting a book, I’ll work through them. I find that there’s usually one method that really suits each book, and I use that for my core plotting, but going through each one makes me look at my story from multiple angles and gives me different ideas for scenes. For instance, I’d gone through about four different plot outlines for this book, but then this morning I got out my Save the Cat book, and that story outline has already helped me flesh out some blanks that were in my outline because there are Save the Cat story beats that fall between the turning points in the other outlines I was using. It’s given me some good ideas for scenes.

One other thing I do is outline the plot for both the protagonist and the antagonist. After I’ve got a good outline for the hero, I turn it around and pretend the villain is the main character, outlining the book from that character’s perspective. That’s a good way to figure out what the villains are up to, even when they’re offstage and working in the background. Then I know what the villains’ plans might be and what the hero will have to react to. Some of the structures are better suited to this than others. The ones that focus on character transformation don’t work too well, unless you’re going to redeem your villain. Or, I suppose you could have the opportunities for realization and transformation that the character doesn’t take.

I might also do some brief outlines for the secondary characters whose actions might affect the plot or who have a subplot of their own. The book I’m working on now is going to have multiple viewpoints, so I need to plot the stories of the various viewpoint characters and then weave that into the main plot.

You don’t have to get too obsessive with structure. It’s a framework to hang scenes upon, so don’t twist your story around to slavishly adhere to some plot structure worksheet if your story doesn’t fit. You may not hit all the beats of every structure. However, if you find that your story doesn’t fit anything and you’re missing most of the major beats or turning points, you might need to develop your story or your characters a little more.

I like screenplay structures, but keep in mind that screenplay structure is different from novel structure, so you’re not going to hit the page numbers they do or even the proportions. The difference in the storytelling media means it takes a different amount of pages to tell the same story visually as opposed to in text. For instance, a movie can convey visually in a second or two what it might take paragraphs or pages to describe in a novel. There are also more “rules” for writing in Hollywood than there are for novels. Movie studios expect a particular structure, with events happening at certain points within a movie, and publishers just care about whether a novel is interesting all the way through. So, don’t get too hung up on all the advice in screenwriting books.

I also find that my outline may or may not hold up as I write. I may discover things along the way and change my mind, but that may also have something to do with the fact that I let myself get vague about events later in the book. With this book that I’m putting a lot more development effort into, it may be different.



I’ve wrapped up the character development phase for this book (except for characters who come up as I plot or write) and have moved on toward plotting. When it comes to the plotting (planning the book before writing it) vs. “pantsing” (writing by the seat of the pants, making it up as you go) debate, I generally end up being both, the worst of both worlds.

I have to have a general sense of the plot before I can write. I at least need to know the major turning points. But most of the time, I don’t really know what the book is actually about until I’ve written it, and once I get close to the ending, I realize I have no idea where it’s actually going because what I thought was an outline was way too vague. Then I have to do extensive revisions to mold the resulting mess into something resembling a story.

I’m trying to do something different with this book and do some extensive outlining. One thing I’ve realized might be my problem is that my outline is more about ideas than scenes, which means there’s nothing concrete or specific. The final confrontation is usually just “final confrontation” in my outline. I may have a sense of what’s going on emotionally with the characters in this scene and what choices they’ll have to make, but I don’t know where it happens, exactly how it happens, how they get there, what it looks like. The farther I am from the beginning, the worse it is. I usually have about the first three or four chapters planned in detail. I have scenes worked out, even bits of dialogue. Then once I’m really into the actual story, beyond the setup, I have a few events. Closer to the end, it’s more vague concepts.

When I started the plotting process on this book, it was exactly like that. I thought I had a lot of detail, but all I really had in any concrete form was the setup. It went vague at the first turning point. So, I started with the ending—what does the final confrontation look like? I worked that out, and then went to the previous scene, to see how we were getting to that final confrontation. I’ve also worked out how the midpoint scene will go. I’ve still got gaps, but it helps to have those big scenes planned. When I’m writing and hit a big point without knowing what will happen, I often go with the first thing that comes to mind, so I get something obvious or trite. Thinking about it ahead of time is giving me a chance to go deeper. It also means I know what I’m going to need to set up earlier in the story.

I’m spending this week doing heavy-duty plot brainstorming, then I’ll put my outline aside over the weekend and come back to it next week to see if I can add to it or improve it. I’m getting really close to the actual writing part, but I’m forcing myself not to get too impatient.


Constructive Procrastination

I sometimes joke about finding ways to label things I do for fun “work” and consider it part of my process, calling this “advanced procrastination techniques.” But the truth is that procrastination isn’t always a bad thing when it comes to creative endeavors.

Our society is bad about prioritizing productivity. Work doesn’t feel like work unless you’ve got something to show for it. If you don’t have a word count, are you really writing? But I’ve found that the longer the span between the first spark of the idea and the time I start actually writing, the better the outcome. Although I get a lot of valuable information from research, intensive character development, “casting” characters and watching movies and shows with my cast members, coming up with playlists, etc., I think the main value comes from feeding my subconscious and giving it time to work so that the idea is more fully formed and developed before I start putting words on paper (or screen). Once I actually start composing the text, that seems to lock things in place. Even though I can still edit and rewrite, the story doesn’t seem as malleable once I put it into words.

For instance, I’ve been visualizing the opening scene of the book I’m developing for at least a year. I see the “movie” in my head, and I keep making little tweaks as I keep thinking about it and how it will fit into the book. This week, I came up with a new character who’ll be involved in that scene (just by thinking about the logistics of who will be there), and this character’s presence completely shifted the scene, plus it brought about a question I hadn’t considered that may somewhat adjust the plot. If I’d written this scene down when I first thought of it instead of just replaying it over and over again in my head, I’m not sure I would have realized this thing. I might not have realized that this character needed to be in the scene, or I’d have come up with a different character to fill that role. My editing and rewriting would have been fixing that original scene, not coming up with something different. Giving my mind time to play with it before I committed to the scene probably means the book will be better than it would have been if I hadn’t been “procrastinating.”

There are a lot of ways to do constructive procrastination. One is to do work related to the book that doesn’t involve actually writing the words. That’s stuff like research, filling out character worksheets, brainstorming, mind mapping, making playlists of your story’s “soundtrack,” watching things that remind you of the story, setting, or cast, doing writing exercises, etc. These are all things that may help develop the story while also giving your mind time to play with it. To fight that sense that I’m not really being productive since I have no word count, I use a stopwatch to track the amount of time I’m spending on these activities.

Then there’s physical or mindless activity that’s entirely unrelated but that gives your mind a chance to play in the background. Long walks are excellent for creativity. Some of the best ideas come while taking showers. Housework and organizing may look like procrastination, but you can do a lot of high-quality thinking while washing dishes.

How do you know when you’ve crossed the line from constructive procrastination to plain old procrastination? I think one sign is when the thing you’re doing to procrastinate doesn’t have any value in and of itself and doesn’t make you feel better. When you can make a direct link to your project or when you get something else out of it, like exercise or a clean house, it’s probably still constructive. If it’s bad for you (like spending a whole day eating junk food and binge watching that’s not sparking any ideas) and doesn’t leave you better off than you were before, it may be ordinary procrastination.

I find that I know when a story is ready for me to start writing it. There are two peaks of enthusiasm. One comes when I first get the idea and I’m so excited about it that I want to drop whatever else I’m doing to work on it right away—I call that Shiny New Idea Syndrome because any new idea is going to be more exciting than the project in progress. Writing down what I know about the idea generally shows me that there’s not much to it yet and I don’t need to start writing it. Then there’s all the research and development, planning and plotting, and I finally get to the point where I’m seeing the “movie” in my head. I’m hearing distinct voices for my characters, seeing them vividly, noticing details in the scenes I see, and I’m getting so excited about it that I can’t wait to see how it all comes together in a book. I want to be able to read this book. That’s when I know it’s time to start writing. There’s a little fear about starting and committing to a direction, but it’s outweighed by wanting to get into this world and play.

Constructive procrastination can come up again during the writing process if I get stuck or reach a turning point and want to really consider what comes next. Then I may do some of my usual pre-writing activities or I may take a break and take a walk or do housework so I can mull it over. This is when I have to be really careful about the difference between constructive procrastination and regular procrastination. Do I really need to think about this, or am I just avoiding it because it’s hard?

All of this presumes no deadlines, of course. I usually only do this extreme level of preparation for the first book in a series. After that, they come more quickly because I’ve already got the world and most of the characters in my head.


Fantasy Casting

One thing I didn’t mention in my character development process was fantasy casting, thinking of real people who resemble your characters. That can be a great tool for some writers, though there are some potential traps.

By fantasy casting, I don’t mean figuring out who would play these characters in the movie made from your book — a realistic cast of people around the right age now who might be available to do this kind of project. I would caution against trying to put together this kind of fantasy cast. For one thing, even if a movie or TV show does get made, the odds are slim that the author would have the kind of clout to dictate casting, and that means you’ll inevitably be disappointed if you’ve already got a firm cast in your head. For another thing, as long as publishing and Hollywood take to develop projects, by the time any movie or TV series got made, your planned cast would have aged out of their roles.

But finding people to serve as models can be helpful. The best comparison I can think of is the live reference actors they sometimes use for animated films to help the animators get a sense of the characters and how they would move. If you look at some of the footage that exists of the references for the Disney animated movies (these are sometimes on the DVDs as bonus features), they aren’t exactly like the characters, but were close enough to help the animators create more realistic characters. A fantasy cast can help a writer in a similar way by putting a physical form to the person. You can get a sense of voice, facial expressions, movement and mannerisms. This can be especially helpful for people who don’t have a strong visual imagination. These writers may know the inside of the characters but can’t quite picture them physically. Watching movies or shows with the fantasy cast can help these writers picture the characters.

The fun thing about this kind of fantasy cast is that you aren’t bound at all by reality. You can cast someone who’s been dead for decades based on how they looked seventy years ago, or you can cast someone who’s current. You could have Judy Garland playing opposite one of the Hemsworth brothers. You aren’t even limited to actors. You can mentally cast singers, athletes, newscasters, politicians or other public figures, even people you’ve seen in real life. I got the “reference model” for one character from someone I saw on an airplane once. I’d been developing this character but didn’t know how he was going to look, and then I saw this man on the plane and thought he’d make a perfect fit. You can also cast multiple people for the same role—one person for the voice, one person for movement, one person for facial expressions. You can cast based on appearance or for the essence you’re trying to convey. You can cast the actor or you can cast based on a particular role, essentially casting a character to play another character.

But you don’t want to adhere too closely to your casting once you start writing, especially if you’re using a real person you know or another character. Fantasy casting works best just as a tool to help you bring a character to life so you can write that character more vividly. I find that once I actually start writing, the casting goes away as the characters take on their own lives in my head. The more I write the characters, the less they resemble the casting. The mental casting mostly serves to prime the pump and give me the initial mental images I need to start writing. After that, I’m just writing my characters.

You can get into some trouble if you use a real person you know who’s recognizable enough that other people know exactly who the character is based on. If you’re using real character traits, put those traits in an entirely different body in different circumstances. Mimi in the Enchanted, Inc. books was inspired by a couple of people I once dealt with at work, but I gave her an entirely different appearance, a different personality, and a different situation. People who’d worked with one or the other of the real people recognized the inspiration because of what she was like to work with, but the one I had any contact with after I wrote any of those books didn’t recognize herself because she had a blind spot about what she was like to work with, and she was otherwise absolutely nothing like Mimi. That “everything in this book is fiction and any resemblance to any person is purely coincidental” disclaimer may or may not protect you if the resemblance is too obvious, and people who aren’t public figures have more legal protection against libel.

I don’t know if there’s any legal danger from casting a character as a character, since plagiarism involves the actual words, not the ideas. I’ve seen authors be quite open about the fact that they were inspired by other characters. There was a historical romance author who did an interview with an entertainment magazine about the fact that the characters in her book were based on House and Dr. Cuddy from the TV series House. A good chunk of urban fantasy and paranormal romance novels had heroes who were quite obviously Spike from Buffy. As a reader, I find it a bit annoying when I can tell the source of the character, but fans of that character might find that appealing. I just think, personally, that if I can tell exactly who or what the character is based on, then the writer is doing it wrong and not adding enough of their own creativity. Use other characters as inspiration, but don’t just plunk a character from something else into your own book and change their name.

As for how much you share of your fantasy casting, that’s up to you. I like to keep it to myself because I want my readers to be able to come up with their own mental images. Most people seem to want to read books before they see movies because they want their own mental imagery instead of the movie, and telling the fantasy casting is kind of like forcing people to see the movie first. On the other hand, there are authors who’ve dedicated their books to the actors who were their fantasy casting for characters.

You don’t have to “cast” your characters. It’s just one possible tool out of many. I only do it some of the time. There have been times when the casting was so obvious to me that I leaned in to it and watched some of that person’s movies just to make it clearer in my head. There have been a few times when I actually created a role for that person because there was something about them that intrigued me and I wanted to play with it. There have been times when I was struggling to get a grip on a character and casting the role made it all come together. I’d guess I did no casting at all for most of my characters, or I went so far from my original casting that I no longer associate that casting with my character. And I think half of my mental casting may actually be a procrastination method to allow me to watch things I like and call it work.


Fleshing Out a Character

I had a fun moment in my character development work this week that provides a good illustration of what happens during my process, so I thought I’d share. This will be more specific about how I go about creating characters, though I’ll avoid specific details since I don’t want to spoil my book, and I don’t even know exactly how it will go in the book because I haven’t started actually writing.

When I began my intense research phase for this series a couple of years ago, I initially was planning to model the main character for this book on a particular historical figure, so I started reading about this person. Along the way, I changed my mind about the character, so although she faces some similar situations as this historical figure, she isn’t actually anything like that person. But there were people in this person’s life I thought were interesting, and there was one in particular whose actions I thought might make for an interesting plot element, so I kept that in mind, jotting down a note in my “things that could happen” list.

Once I started thinking about the plot, after I thought I was done developing the main characters, I decided I needed to use this plot element, and that meant I needed a character to do these things. There was also a trope I wanted to play with, and I figured this character would be the perfect place to use this trope. At this point, the character was just a plot figure. I knew nothing about who he was as a person, just what he would do in the story, so I had to reverse engineer a character who was the sort of person who would do the kinds of things this character does.

The first bit of coming to life came when I figured out what he wanted and why. I knew what he was doing, but what did he hope to gain by doing it, and why did he want or need to gain that? Once I figured that out, I realized that fit well with another idea I’d come up with for this series.

The plan is that this will be a “world” series, with a bunch of interconnected books taking place in the same world, each with a different main character (though as I develop it, I’m thinking there might be miniseries within the series, with perhaps multiple books following some characters). I had a dream that gave me an idea for a later book in this series, and I realized that this character could be one of the characters for that idea, which is great because it allows me to set up that future book here and develop this character as a secondary character before he gets his own book. Pieces were starting to click into place, which is always satisfying.

Then I turned to some of my characterization shortcuts. There are a lot of personality profile things out there, things that give you a fairly coherent list of traits for a given personality type. Some common ones are zodiac astrology signs, the Myers-Briggs types, archetypes, and enneagrams. These are a good way to find a general personality type for a character and then find some common traits and issues that might come with that kind of person. I don’t end up slavishly adhering to any of these types, but they’re a great starting point for figuring out what kind of person a character might be while making the combination of traits feel believable instead of random.

And then once I have the rough basis for the personality, I can start going through a few lists of questions I ask myself about the characters, build a backstory, and generally flesh out characters so they start feeling like a person in my head. I know I’m getting close when I actually picture the person doing things while I answer the questions.

So now a guy who started as a possible plot idea has become a fleshed-out character who may get his own book down the line. I was prepared to dislike him, based on what he does in the plot, but now that I understand him better, he’s growing on me. The real test will be whether I can do him justice in the book and have him be in the story the way he is in my head.