Usually I create an outline for a novel and race through the first draft. The resulting manuscript, as I noted in Writing The Zero Draft Of Your Novel, usually has tons of plot holes and characters who are more like stick figures.
I'm okay with that because that's what rewrites are for.
Sometimes, though, what I don't know about a character keeps me from moving forward.
Characters Who Don't Drive The Story
Because I'm a fan of writing first drafts fast I don't worry too much about side characters.
For example, in my current novel (The Fractured Man, the third in my Q.C. Davis suspense/mystery series) a character named Dan appears in an early scene. He's a suspect in the murder at the heart of the book.
But I already know he'll be eliminated as a serious possibility pretty early on. Also, while he'll get in my main character Quille's way as she investigates, doing that won't depend on who he is as a person.
Because of that, right now he doesn't have a whole lot of personality. Or backstory.
When I'm done with this initial draft, I'll expand his character to fit what I need him to do and be. If he's meant to be a red herring and mislead the reader, he may very well end up a three-dimensional, compelling character.
Sometimes readers end up loving those characters. Maybe because I have so much fun creating them after I've nailed down the plot.
For now, though, it's fine for him to walk in and do what the plot requires.
The Characters Who Matter Most
Other characters, though, propel the story forward. The most obvious is the protagonist.
For The Fractured Man, my main character Quille continues from book to book. I have a good sense of who she is. For that reason, I thought I'd write the third book in the series pretty fast once I had the plot figured out. (I do a rough 5-point outline and make some notes, and usually it's enough.)
I rarely worry about whether any one scene is exciting or dull at this early stage because it's easier to figure out what's working and not when I have a whole novel in front of me.
But if a major character lacks motivation, or I'm unclear how two people relate to each other and their feelings ought to drive the plot, everything falls flat.
Which was happening with The Fractured Man.
I found myself rewriting early scenes and struggling with momentum. I finally realized it was because I didn't have a good feel for what was happening with Quille and her best friend from childhood, Caleb.
He comes to her for help after dropping out of her life when they were both twenty years old. For me (and therefore the reader) to believe Quille would do him a major favor after over a decade of silence, I needed to know how they felt about each other.
Not only right now but in the past.
Past, Present, and Future
Sometimes if you know a character well enough in the present, you can fill in the past as you go. Other times who that character was as a child makes a vast difference to who the person is now.
Think about Stephen King's It, for instance. My love for the characters as children had a huge amount to do with why I found their story as adults compelling.
But the more I thought about Caleb and kicked around ideas in my head, the more frustrated I became. I could picture him, but I couldn't quite get in touch with him.
So I took out some tarot card decks, which I use as creative prompts only. (Despite having written some horror fiction, I'm not a believer in the supernatural or the occult.) If you're not comfortable with tarot decks, you can buy any sort of deck of cards with striking imagery.
I laid out a card for the past, the present, and the future from the Robin Wood tarot deck and did the same for an Angel tarot deck.
Without looking at what the cards supposedly mean, I wrote a few notes with my reaction to the images and card titles alone. I found the cards in the Future column most compelling.
The Sun seemed to me to portray Caleb's whole personality. He sees himself as the center of the universe with everyone revolving around him. The upside down card The Lovers demonstrated what I saw for him in future relationships. Basically that he comes at love, friendship, and family relationships in an upside down way. Looking for what he can get first and then wondering why he doesn't feel close with anyone.
From there I moved to the past and then the present. Though I'd thought I might write about his friendship with Quille, in the end I wrote only about Caleb.
Have I solved every issue, and filled in every blank, for Caleb? No. But it's enough that I feel confident that I can keep writing from where I am, which is about one-fifth through the story.
What are your favorite ways to learn more about your characters?
That's all for today. Until next Friday–
P.S. Looking for more help creating characters? Download Free Character Creation Worksheets.