Advice: on characters

PhotobucketWhen Therese told me we’re having an “advice” month here on Writer Unboxed, I was pleased. Not because my advice is so stellar, but because themes make it easier for me to choose a post topic. Our lovely co-founder expressed curiosity as to how I can get to know my characters so quickly, enough to write their emotional states in conjunction with my How to Draft a Book in 6 Weeks master plan. But before I go into that, I’d like to relate an anecdote first. (It’s pertinent, I promise.) Let me set the scene for you.

In 2007, I signed with a new agent and made my first sale to New York. Though I’d been writing for years, I was still relatively new to the publishing end of things. My friend (and now writing partner) Carrie Lofty and I psyched each other up to attend RWA nationals; it was our first professional conference. Since then, I’ve sold 18 books (3 of those in collaboration with Carrie), two short stories and a novella. It’s been quite a ride.

Dallas, Texas. July 2007
I turn up on Dallas, knowing I’m going to meet my agent for the first time. I’m meeting Carrie for the first time as well; prior, we’ve been online friends. Nerves overwhelm me at the crowds. Everyone seems to know each other; I feel like a poser. What the heck am I doing here? Before my dinner with my agent, I go up to my room and sit on the bathroom floor with my head between my knees. I am terrified. I’m convinced I’m going to make a bad impression on everyone, and why, oh why, did I ever let myself get talked into this? I don’t know how I write a book. I spent a summer working on Grimspace (the one that sold) and I am none too convinced I can repeat the process. It was probably a fluke–me writing something that sells. Is there a writing equivalent of the one-hit-wonder? Here I am!

Somehow I pull myself together. I have a nice dinner with my agent. Nothing disastrous happens. I begin to enjoy that conference. And then… I attend a Q&A with Nora Roberts. I am too starstruck to ask a question, but I am sitting there, vibrating with excitement nonetheless. Someone asks about her process.

This is where the light comes on.

She says, in essence, that she starts with an idea, and the first draft is the “discovery” draft, where she learns her characters. Much fixing comes later; the point is learning who they are.
Well, that’s what I do. I didn’t know it was a called a “discovery” draft. I have learned so much in the three years since that first terrifying conference. I’ve now perfected what works for me, so I can repeat it.

Which brings me back to Therese’s original question. How do you get to know your characters in six weeks? Well, I open myself up to them. I listen as I write, and if I can’t get them to tell me what they’d do in any given situation, I make it up. I guess. It’s not a perfect solution, and you know, sometimes later, after I’ve gotten to know them, something I wrote just doesn’t work because the hero wouldn’t do that or say such a thing. The answer is simple: revision. I used to think revision meant I got it wrong and I stink. Now I know better.

My “discovery” drafts are not awesome, but I polish them. I make the words shine in the second and third passes. My books are character-driven, so it’s paramount I get it right. To that end, building a house works as an analogy for how I write. First, I lay the foundation, then the frame goes up. (Dialogue, light narrative, basic blocking.) Once I have a sound structure (first draft), I go back through and add the wiring. (More narrative, blocking becomes sophisticated.) I add insulation and drywall (refine plot points and double-check for consistency / cause and effect.) Finally, I paint and decorate (more description, the lyrical and poetic bits people like.) I suppose I don’t know my characters in and out at the end of six weeks, but by the time I am done with all the revision, I do. I can add that emotional veracity from spending all that time in their heads. Finally, the best piece of advice I can give you? Commit to your characters. Feel what they feel. You can’t write about their suffering with the proper intensity if their situation doesn’t make you want to weep, too. If you’re not moved by them, who will be?

Photo courtesy Flickr’s stevendepolo


About Ann Aguirre

Ann Aguirre is a bestselling, multi-published author with a degree in English Literature. She is a prolific writer, with nine releases planned for 2011 alone. She writes romantic science fiction and urban fantasy under her own name. As Ava Gray, she writes high-octane romances. She also writes "hot paranormal apocalyptic action" with fellow author Carrie Lofty under the pseudonymn Ellen Connor. Follow her on Twitter.


  1. says

    I am starting to write my first novel, and your house analogy may be one of the most helpful bits of explanation of the writing process I’ve read to date (and I’ve read a LOT). Reading your advice on characters gives me courage to try writing a “discovery” draft, just to get the characters out there and to keep my perfectionist self from getting bogged down in fine-tuning each section as I go (and possibly never finishing). Thank you for this post.

  2. says

    Thanks for the advice. Sometimes when I write, I feel like I have to get everything in the first draft: character, plot, narrative, dialog, etc. It’s helpful to see your process and to know that it’s okay to just start with a foundation and work my way to a complete project in small steps.

    I agree that we have to get to know our characters: “feel what they feel.” On a rare occasion I get to know my characters so well that it seems like they are writing and not me. When this happens, I am genuinely surprised by their thoughts and actions.
    .-= Laura Rachel Fox´s last blog ..Surprising and Distressing Things =-.

  3. says

    This is a wonderful post. I used to feel the same way about revision as you did — that it meant I couldn’t figure things out correctly the first time.

    Plus I will admit, it’s more FUN to draft (it’s like driving in a fast convertible with the top down in the summer) while revising is harder (creeping along on the ice in the winter and trying not to skid off the road).

    I have a new respect nowadays for the revision process. It’s exciting to see all the elements I envisioned in the draft coming together in a polished version.
    .-= Donna Cummings´s last blog ..Cricket in the Bathtub =-.

  4. says

    I much prefer the term “discovery draft” to the ubiquitous “sh#tty first draft” that a lot of us talk about it. I love Anne Lamott but there is something inherently negative about her term. It implies that the first draft is bad. The first draft is no where close to publishing ready, but it is an important (and wonderful!) part of the process. So thanks for introducing me to my new favorite term – Discovery Draft.
    .-= Rebecca @ Diary of a Virgin Novelist´s last blog ..When the mind overflows… =-.

  5. says

    I write my first draft — my discovery draft– in six weeks. That’s 3k a day, five days a week.

    At the end of that time, I have a book that I then revise until it’s right.
    .-= Ann Aguirre´s last blog ..On Courtesy =-.

  6. says

    That’s when I employ my best guess. It’s not always right, but it lets me keep moving. Quite often, they will speak up and correct me further along in the process; I then make the necessary adjustments.
    .-= Ann Aguirre´s last blog ..On Courtesy =-.

  7. says

    Wow. I think we might be twins. :)
    I finished my third novel last week, and it just happened to take me 6 weeks to complete the first draft. Now that I’m working through my second draft, it’s like you took the words right out of my mouth with some of your comments here. I got chills.

  8. says

    Thanks, Ann! “Commit to your characters. Feel what they feel. You can’t write about their suffering with the proper intensity if their situation doesn’t make you want to weep, too. If you’re not moved by them, who will be?” That is such powerful advice, and so true!

  9. says

    I think we’ve all read books where our emotions aren’t engaged. There can be a number of reasons for that. Sometimes the subject matter just isn’t for us, so we can’t connect.

    But sometimes, I do wonder if that author wasn’t writing -about- his or her characters, instead of writing them. I don’t read to be told a story; I read to feel one. I want it to be visceral. I want a book to move me in some fashion. YMMV.
    .-= Ann Aguirre´s last blog ..On Courtesy =-.

  10. says

    Great post, Ann, and your last comment– “But sometimes, I do wonder if that author wasn’t writing -about- his or her characters, instead of writing them. I don’t read to be told a story; I read to feel one.” So true!

  11. says

    I picked up the term “Draft Zero” from Cherie Priest and have been using it, but discovery draft has a good ring about it. I remember panicking once, after I had two books finished under my belt and had started querying agents, because I thought published authors were expected to just hand over their first drafts to agents for opinions. No one sees my books until I’ve done at least three drafts. Glad to hear that stays the same once you’ve sold 18 books (OMG Ann, 18? Wow! And I remember when Your alibi came out! Congrats!)

  12. says

    Here’s the breakdown.

    Jax books (6)

    Corine books (3)
    Blue Diablo
    Hell Fire
    Shady Lady

    YA books (2)

    As Ava Gray (4 + 1 novella)
    Skin Game
    Skin Tight
    Skin Heat
    Skin & Bone (novella)
    Skin Dive

    As Ellen Connor w/ Carrie Lofty (3)

    So that’s 6+3+2+4+3=18.

    Plus, of course, the novella and two short stories. It’s been an amazing three years, let me tell you. Of those books, I still have:

    Aftermath, Endgame, Wireville, Midnight & Daybreak yet to write. So I’ve completed 13/18, and two of them, I won’t be writing on my own, so work-wise it’s only like one book.
    .-= Ann Aguirre´s last blog ..On Courtesy =-.