Wednesday, November 30, 2011

How much do you need to know when you start?

How much should you know about your character(s) before you start writing? This is a question many of us face. Should you create a sketch of the protagonist and/or major players prior to writing your story? Or should you see how they develop as you go? And what difference might it make?

Every time I visit Sue Grafton’s website and the “Kinsey Millhone Biography” page, I am astonished at the details contained within. Far from a sketch, this is a full-blown biography, beginning at protagonist Kinsey’s birth (“Kinsey Millhone was born May 5, 1950, in Santa Teresa, California, to Rita and Randall Millhone”) weaving through Kinsey’s rebellious childhood, past her marriages, and concluding at present (“She still lives there and is very friendly with her landlord, Henry, and Rosie the tavern owner nearby”).

Did Grafton know all of the information offered on the biography page before she began writing her series with A for Alibi (1982)? I’m not sure. But I bet she knew much of it, considering the bio begins well before readers ever meet the adult Kinsey.

There are many benefits to knowing your character before you start writing. The more familiar you are with them, the better you will know how s/he will react in a given situation, what strengths, fears, or weaknesses they have—all of which are key to plot development. Also, the more you know about your characters, the less likely you are to discover s/he has green eyes on page 10 and pale blue eyes on page 310, saving you time and energy during the revision stage.

I often encourage students to sketch out character before they begin penning a story. Admittedly, I do less of that myself and in the rewrite spend time correcting inconsistencies. Elmore Leonard says he writes the first hundred pages before he knows where he is headed. However, each of his characters has such a distinct voice—in both narration and dialogue—that it is hard to believe.

As with all things in fiction writing, to sketch or not to sketch depends on one’s personal preference. Try sketching out your characters if you haven’t; if creating a character sketch is part of your routine, try winging it. After all, as W. Somerset Maugham famously said, “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

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