Character Design

My nights this week have been focused beneath the weak little spot of light that I do my research under while sitting on the couch. Everything else around me is dark. There’s an as assemblage of debris surround me too: piles of notes, notebooks, post-its, a stack of Dungeons and Dragons manuals, and my laptop is heating my thighs. There’s a pencil sticking into my left buttcheek that I can’t be bothered to unstick. My hair is fluffed and coming out of its pony tail. I’m sporting wicked circles under my eyes. I don’t have the time to cook anything, so I’ve had a sandwich and a beer for dinner, and I’m cranky.

I’m working out the backstories, behavioural tags, motivations, and goals for a cast of eight fictitious entities. I recognize that I shouldn’t be bitching. My universe could be bigger: I could be writing high fantasy or hard sci-fi, where my character design list might number upwards of thirty or forty. I can’t imagine what it might be like trying to keep thirty characters and all their subplots in order. I’m not that ambitious.

I took a moment to pause and expand the spreadsheet with everyone’s details in it, and I realized that I’m wrong: I’m working out the details for three books with roughly ten characters each. A few minutes ago I was wondering why my jaw was starting to ache, but I realize know its because I’ve been grinding my teeth.

Character Design

I’m in the character design phase of pre-writing. The questionnaire I’m using to shape each of the players is long enough to warrant spreadsheet use, but if I were being completely honest, I spend the bulk of phase one in spreadsheet hell while hammering away at goals and stakes and major plot points anyway. The high-level work is done, but now I’m playing god:

I’m giving these people lives, and history, and texture, and various quirks that fill in the barren middle of the novels, and over the course of the process, I’m building out the Arcanum. (What you might recognize as a “story bible”, though I flinched at the term and promptly renamed it in the efforts of keeping things secular. Since the trilogy is dabbling in life and death and the question of an afterlife and the persistence of the immortal soul without ever once factoring popular religiosity into things, I’m running with it: “Arcanum”. It has its own bestiary and grimoire because it was far more appropriate than attempting to convince myself the laws of the world were sacred writ when they’ll likely change.)

ScrivenerThis process is taking forever, and there’s an ever-looming deadline in week’s time, at which point I will force myself to switch gears and write the synopsis for three books, and do a full scene and sequel breakdown with goals and resolutions, and probably devise a method to keep track of my plates (i.e. all those questions you set up for the reader as you’re writing to keep them moving forward. “Spinning plates” get it? If you put ‘em up, you gotta take ‘em down; and my worst habit while writing without an outline is not keeping tabs on them all.)

In the meantime: 75 questions per character. I’m hammering away.

Why bother doing Character Design at all

Why bother doing this, you might ask? Why commit to this overwhelming exertion pre-writing when ninety percent of it won’t make it into the novel? (Or, maybe if you’ve noted, why do this when I find the process frustrating, gruelling, overwhelming, soul-sucking, etc.)

  • Because the first time I wrote the first book, the middle sagged.
  • Because the first time I wrote the first book, I didn’t understand why the villain was the way the villain was and that is a critical bit of information that sets the antagonist against the protagonist and generates conflict.
  • Because the first time I wrote the first book, the protagonist needed to be more. She need to grow into something much bigger than she thought she was capable of, and I failed to get her there in a way that I thought was believable for the plot.
  • Because the first time I wrote the first book, I forgot why anyone was doing anything and I stopped giving a shit at the three-quarter mark.
  • Because the first time I wrote the first book, I didn’t understand how to level-up the stakes across a trilogy.
  • Because I had trouble seeing the bigger picture.
  • Because the characters were inconsistent in their presentation.
  • Because they read like paper cutouts, and paper cutouts don’t bleed.

Not good.

75 questions per character are worth it. 75 questions dealing with origins and births and deaths and fears and desires and secrets and the places where they lost themselves and they changed. 75 questions that make them real and imperfect and broken and beautiful — and some of them reveal that they are masquerading as something that they’re not.

How Character Design is helpful

  • I have specifications for each character in the universe that I can use to fact check when the writing gets away from me; so the manuscript beast stays leashed and under my control.
  • I have a 360 view of where each character is coming from pre-story and where they’ll end up.
  • I have every weakness, worry, fear, and tremor documented and ready to exploit to make for a more interesting read.
  • I have the hidden story available to me so I can run multiple plot threads at once and see how they braid together. (Super important for my subplots.)
  • I have everyone’s goals. I have everyone’s stakes. I know how far I can push everyone before they lose their minds completely and they start gibbering.
  • I can see if there’s overlap and make adjustments so that everyone’s unique, and I can tell at the onset, if the request comes in to hack down the word count, who’s going to get cut.
  • I have the fodder for prequels and sequels that aren’t part of the main storyline.
  • I know who’s expendable. I know who’s not expendable, but would have a bigger impact if they didn’t make it.

You should note at this point that I’m on day two of working with my primary antagonist and I’m about to start work on the childhood years — it’s a dark time and I’m dithering, trying to warm up before I get into the stuff that turned the character bad, because this is going to be unpleasant for both of us: for the retelling from the character’s point of view, and from my experiencing it.

On that note, I’ll leave you a reference for the place where I got those 75 questions to begin with so I can actually get to work.

Since I can’t copy over everything in my spreadsheet (for the obvious fact that it’d be copyright infringement) I’d like to point you towards The Fantasy Fiction Formula by Deborah Chester.


There’s considerably more in the book than I’m offering you here, but you can grab the details at Goodreads and grab the book off Amazon. Well worth the time and trouble of giving it a read: it’s reshaped my pre-writing process a bunch (as if that wasn’t already obvious.)

Back to work for me, and enjoy. 🙂


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