Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Tip Sheets

Up until a few months ago, I really didn’t give character creation much thought. [That sounds bad, I know] but my characters seemed to just appear fully formed in my head. They had faces and usually full names, first and last, and occasionally they confessed to me their personality quirks before I started writing their stories. It worked – though I did come across a lot of surprises. [Actually sometimes that was the fun part.] Halfway through a story I’d discover something about a character that I didn’t know. Sometimes it would be that big AHA moment, like when I realized while writing my first werewolf story, Wolfsbane: Aspect of the Wolf, that my hero, Daniel, actually had some werewolf blood in him. That significantly changed how I handled the rest of the story. My favorite one of these AHA moments came during an unpublished story I wrote about 10 years ago called AU [Alternate Universe] in which the heroine, Andrea, confesses her love for her commanding officer, Steven. I’d been writing about these characters for a while, and I never, never knew how Andrea felt about Steven. It totally blew me away to find out.

Now, while those moments can be a lot of fun for a writer, and they happen whether you meticulously plot your characters or not [because, lets face it, even people you know in real life can surprise you. It still shocks my best friend that I’m a ‘beer swillin’ hockey nut.*’] it’s better to know as much about your characters as possible before you start writing.

Some authors do character interviews, analyses, collages, portraits, charts, etc. I’ve tried a couple of these, but what worked best for me was the simple Tip Sheet. I developed my own tip sheet and since I’ve been filling out one of these for each story I write, I find my writing goes more smoothly and my characters seem to come alive for me much faster.

Here are the categories on my tip sheet:

BLURB: Since I’ll need a blurb anyway when the story is finished, it helps to have a rough draft to work from.

HERO: I put him first...well, just because. This section is going to contain is vital stats and his personality, his motivations, his deep dark secrets [at least the ones I know already]

HEROINE: Same thing as above. I want to know what attracts her to the hero as well and especially who she is outside the framework of romance. What is her life really about before she meets the hero and how does it change?

IMPORTANT SECONDARY CHARACTERS: This helps a lot, because once I know who is going to be circulating around my MCs I can flesh out the plot a lot better.

IMPORTANT THEMES, SCENES AND FOCUS: Since a lot of times I get story ideas from scenes that will end up in the middle of the book somewhere, it helps to jot these ideas down. This also helps in crafting the characters because I can tailor their personality traits to jive with or contrast the theme of the book.

CLIMAX, ENDING, BLACK MOMENT OR ESSENTIAL PLOT TWISTS: Same as above – I’ve always been a pantser, so sometimes I don’t really know the ending when I start a story, but if I do, having it hear helps me know what I’m working toward. Sometimes all I know about a story is the monumental plot twist, so having that on paper also gives me a framework to hang everything else on.

That’s it. This is much simpler than a lot of the forms authors use to map out their characters and their stories, but it works for me. I can fill in a Tip Sheet in half an hour or so and then I refer to it throughout the writing process. I don’t revise the tip sheet, because it’s just a reference to get me started, and sometimes keeping all my original notes intact can help me get back on track if I lose focus.

Do you have a form you work with to help create your characters or your plot? Do you think it helps as just a starting point, or throughout the whole process? Feel free to use my Tip Sheet if you like it, and if you do, let me know if it helps you with your stories.

* Without the ‘beer swillin’ part.

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Savanna Kougar said...

Good tip sheet, only the heroine always goes first when I do a synopsis, which is similar to your tip sheet. I vary a lot. If the heroine or hero is right there, I write down, or if it's as scene, or if I know the plot. Whatever I know gets written down first generally. But I've started writing stories just from a title.

Bernadette Gardner and Jennifer Colgan said...

I've done that too - started with a title! I also have a collection of titles that don't have stories yet - arrgh!! Maybe someday something will pop into my head and I'll be able to use them.

Lynda K. Scott said...

Hey, can I use some of your titles? :D I have the hardest time coming up with a good one...but before we start discussing that maybe I ought to put that down as a subject for another theme week! LOL

Great post, btw!

Bernadette Gardner and Jennifer Colgan said...

Thanks, Lynda! What's funny is, I often write stories that I can't come up with titles for - and they never seem to match the titles that don't have stories. It's just not fair.

Lynda K. Scott said...

LOL, no, it isn't fair at all. Maybe we ought to do a title exchange one of these days :D