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Pre-Writing: Discovering Your Character’s Secrets

Alice Popkorn, Flickr Creative Commons [1]
Alice Popkorn, Flickr Creative Commons

I know a lot of you out there are gearing up for NaNoWriMo, and while you’re not allowed to begin your story until November 1, you are allowed to do pre-writing on your project, and frankly, I think pre-writing is highly undervalued, so I thought I’d talk about it this month.

The reason I’m a big believer in pre-writing is because until I have a glimmer of understanding of my character’s emotional landscape and internal settings, I don’t know what sorts of story events will challenge them. I don’t understand what sorts of interaction will push them to their limits, make them question everything, make them dig deep or lay them bare.

In the pre-writing stage, we’re gathering the materials and ingredients we will use to build our story. Pre-writing is where we discover the character’s juiciness and crunch, their texture and heft.

I get that some people do this in early drafts, and I use to be one of them, but more and more I have begun to take the time to learn this in pre-writing and thus save myself a number of unfruitful drafts. The other thing that can happen is that if we don’t have enough knowledge of our characters so we can truly challenge them, we run the risk of the story petering out. My archives at home are full of stories that simply ran out of gas. One of the biggest reasons stories peter out is due to not enough conflict or depth. If you dig deep enough, there is conflict to be found in the recesses of your character’s psyche. Pre-writing can help figure that out early on to help avoid dead ends and running out of juice.

If the question is Why should the reader care? the answer is often hidden in the backstory.

Pre-writing is all about backstory, which informs the characters and story taking place just as surely as the contours of the earth’s crust influences its landscape.

The backstory is what clues the reader in to why THIS event is so cataclysmic for THIS character. Why this hurdle has the potential to flatten her. Why this relationship is so critical to her well being. Why this situation she finds herself in will force her to grow or change in terrifying new ways.

Of course, the challenging part is once we know all this backstory, how do we weave it into the unfolding story as seamlessly as possible. The key to this is through the way the characters view the world—if they are optimistic or pessimistic, trusting or cynical, driven or lazy. It shows up in how they react to and interact with others. It informs and colors all their relationships—both with the people and the world around them. For example, some people relish interpersonal conflict, others avoid it, while some placate or respond in a passive aggressive manner. Do you know how your character responds to interpersonal conflict? Do you know why she responds that way?

In the pre-writing stage, we’re getting to know the intimate contours of our characters and hauling up the ingredients we will use to build our story. Knowing these sorts of things can really help you avoid floundering as you write the first draft.

If you think about it, we all have traumas and wounds, some small and some large. We begin accruing these at an early age and some of them have the power to greatly color how we view ourselves and our place in the world. Just as a physical wound leaves scar tissue, so too do our psychological and emotional wounds.

So how did your character’s wounds and scar tissue skewer her belief about herself? Her role in the world? How others would always perceive her? Does she leap into the fray or hang back, needing to be pushed or nudged? If so, what does it take to push her?

If she always leaps, what unexpected obstacles make this particular leap different than all the others?

Think of it this way: when we leave on a journey, we carry some sort of suitcase or duffel bag with us. Well, we carry psychological backpacks as well. And a character setting out on a journey that warrants a book about them, well, they should have some seriously interesting stuff in that suitcase.

Even when we leave the house in the morning, just as we might carry a briefcase or backpack or overlarge purse, so we carry our psychic burdens with us. The fight with our spouse. Financial worries. Concern for an ill or unhappy child. Any of those will color our day and how we interact with others.

During the pre-writing stage, it can be hugely helpful to ask some really penetrating questions of your characters. What were their earliest traumas and wounds? Betrayal? A sense of being disempowered? That they didn’t matter? That they only mattered when they were good/strong/smart/funny/productive? Even the most well meaning of parents pass on to their kids silent messages and coding—which ones did your character receive?
Think of your character at four, at seven, at ten, twelve, and fourteen. These ages often see seismic shifts in our relationship with the world. Knowing your character’s formative experiences will help give you the dramatic juice you need to fuel the relationships in the book and to impart a sense of meaning and importance to the story events.

Think of their relationships with other characters in the books. What shared experiences will connect them? Act as a repellent? Create discord and friction? What common experiences will build a bridge between them—or erect a wall?

Of course, starting with a black slate of our character can be scary. So take what little you do know and follow that thread backwards. If your character is angry—why? If she’s got a chip on her shoulder, or is defiant or sassy or obsequious—why? We don’t develop personal traits in a vacuum, neither should your character. As you come to better understand who she is and how she got that way, you will be able to make her more alive and vibrant for your readers.

Keep in mind that it isn’t our goal to whack the reader in the face with all this backstory in one great info dump in the beginning of the book. But rather, we want to let them discern the scar tissue our characters carry and then in turn let it seduce our readers into becoming invested in learning more.

 Even though we might only use about 20% of the things we unearth in the pre-writing stage, it can act as rocket fuel to see us through those early drafts.


What sort of questions do you ask when getting to know your characters? Is there anything you simply MUST know before you can begin writing?

About Robin LaFevers [2]

Robin LaFevers [3] is the author of seventeen books for young readers, including the HIS FAIR ASSASSIN trilogy [4] about teen assassin nuns in medieval France and the upcoming COURTING DARKNESS [5]. A lifelong introvert, she currently lives on a blissfully quiet hill in Southern California.