Back in October, I blogged about sloppy firsts: how terrifying it is to begin that clumsy first draft of a book. And now I’m there: in the early stages of drafting a new novel. It’s exciting. It really is. I should have mentioned that in October’s post—having all the potential of a new story stretching out before you is amazing, a feeling like no other. But all the same . . .
I just finished a trilogy—which means that the last three books I’ve written have centered on the same main characters. I’ve been in their heads and they’ve been in mine every single day for the last four years. Through the births of my two girls, the excitement of first-time publication, a major move . . . and that’s just what’s happened in my life, never mind theirs.
I was talking to my husband about how strange it feels to be writing through new characters’ eyes, characters that I’m only just getting to know and who just don’t yet talk to me in the same way my old ones did. And he said, “So basically you and your characters are on an awkward first date right now.”
Yes! That is EXACTLY where my characters and I are. We are fiddling nervously with our breadsticks, taking gulps of our ice water to cover uncomfortable pauses in conversation, saying things like, “So, where did you grow up?”
It’s a tricky prospect, getting to know not just the dressed up, best-behavior, first-date versions of your characters, but all their quirks and hidden secrets and fears, as well. Because I’ve found it’s not just a matter of asking them. I mean, who goes on a first date prepared to talk at length about that hideously embarrassing episode in seventh grade—or that really annoying bad habit—or the first boy to break your heart?
So how do you get there, to the point where your characters will open up, tell you things they’d never share with anyone else?
For me, the answer is outlining. Didn’t we all hear growing up that trials and hardships are what builds character? Well, let them do just that for you—build characters. Literally.
I may not know my characters as well as I’d like when I begin writing a book. But I do know—roughly—what kind of people they are. And what I ask myself when I’m outlining the plot is: what are the hardest personal challenges I could force these characters to face?
Take, for example, a story about an olympic swimmer. You could have him swim out into a rough ocean and save someone from drowning. Pretty dramatic, right? Pretty exciting? Well, no. Or at least not as dramatic and exciting as it could be. An olympic champion swimmer isn’t going to be terribly challenged by swimming in a rough ocean—in the water is where he’s probably most comfortable of all. How much more tension-filled and dramatic would it would be if your main character has a terrible, crippling fear of water—but has to save someone from drowning anyway? Or if you’re committed to the olympic swimmer idea, consider giving him a younger sister who drowned in just such circumstances. The whole time he’s attempting the rescue he’s plagued by flashbacks to that accident, memories of the sister whose life he couldn’t save.
Obviously that example still isn’t exactly what you’d call best-seller material, but you get the idea. When I’m outlining, I craft my plot around pushing my characters to their personal limits. And then I watch how they respond. It’s another truism that hard times bring out both the best and the worst in human nature. I outline my stories before I start writing for exactly that reason. So that I can find the best and worst in my characters through the way they handle the tests I throw at them—so that they can start surprising me, reacting in ways I’d never have dreamed.
Of course, that’s just a beginning. Even once I’ve got the basic plot figured out I know I’ve much more to learn about my characters. I know they’ll be surprising me and challenging me all throughout the writing process and that I’ll know them infinitely better when I finally, finally type the words “the end.” But the outline is a start. Enough to get us—with luck—past that first date to a second and even a third. Enough so that the real journey can begin.