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The Box of Lives

Box of LivesHey, my fellow Writerly Women! It delights me that you're reframing those questions that may have been keeping you from moving forward. Thanks for sharing, really. And move forward we must. Do the next thing. Be led to knowing what that next thing is. That's what we do, yes?

Actually, knowing what to do next, or even first, can sometimes be paralyzing. That's why, in my view, it's important to have a process, not just for writing as a whole -- as in, do you peel off layers or keep yanking at that drawer the potato masher is stuck in until it comes loose (I'll always love that image, GLORIA!). I find I need a process for each part of unfolding a story or a non-fiction piece. Building a plot takes a different approach than developing characters, and creating setting requires still another method, as does enriching theme.  Do you find that to be true? If you haven't thought about it, now's a great time to ponder that some.

So how about we start with characters? I personally discover my people first -- especially my protagonist and main antagonist -- determining what they need to learn, which then determines what will happen to get them there. Whether the folks in your work meet you at the starting line or further down the track, you do have to figure them out sometime, so hopefully this will be helpful to you.

There are about as many ways to shape your people as there are writers doing it. Diane Setterfield, who is fast becoming one of my favorite authors, writes in her awesome book The Thirteenth Tale about a young biographer and tells of her process for bringing the people to life on the page:

    For all my biographical projects I have kept a box of lives. A box of index cards containing the details ... of all the significant people in the life of my subject. I never quite know what to make of my boxes of lives. Depending on my mood they either strike me as a memorial to gladden the dead ("Look!" I imagine them saying as they peer through the glass at me. "She's writing us down on her cards! And to think we've been dead two hundred years!"), or, when the glass is very dark and I feel quite stranded and alone this side of it, they seem like little cardboard tombstones, inanimate and cold, and the box itself is as dead as the cemetery. " Thirteenth tale

First of all, you can see why I love her writing. So. Much. And why I might be tempted to adopt this approach just to see ...

Character developmentAnd yet my way is perfect for me. I set up a section in my binder for Characters, and each one has a picture I've selected from a magazine or on line (if I come to your home, do NOT give me access to your periodicals because it's almost compulsive for me to rip things out of them) and a full character analysis I can easily refer to as I write. Because I start each one of those with the person's backstory, their lives often tell me how the plot may twist and turn. We as real people aren't born with plots -- just natures. What happens to us and because of us tends to be shaped by who we are -- and vice versa, which is a plot in itself. 

But I digress ...

Again, not everyone would love doing that. In fact, I was going to teach at a writing camp once (it didn't pan out) and the young assistant assigned to me told me flat out, "I am so sick of doing character analyses. That is not how true artists write." I had to bite my tongue so I wouldn't ask how many books SHE had published, (a) because that would have been ugly and (b) she had a point, for her. That is not how the true HER writes.

So what are our options for making people up?

From working with writers for so many years, I've seen all kinds of methods --

    * Journalling and spiral journalling ( See our post from last year for more information on that. )

    * Hanging out with a character and making notes (one of my former clients smokes a cigarette with her protagonist; not physically healthy but she gets great results)

    *  Getting really creative and doing drawings or making figures. (When I wrote the Christian Heritage Series, Marijean's American Girl dolls were often in my office)

    * Creating a spread sheet (writer friend BRENDA does this; makes me break out in hives, but it works for her)

    * Using a program like Scrivener (author ANGELA HUNT swears by it; again, this makes me want to curl up into a fetal position, but she looks at my binder with all the stuff sticking out of it and turns pale)

And if you're a pantser? I'm in awe. I truly am. How the Sam Hill do you DO that? I know it happens and happens successfully. Far be it from me to discourage you. I will offer this, though. According to Donald Maass, the pantsers allow themselves the freedom to explore endlessly and make amazing discoveries, while the planners, if we're not careful, may somewhat limit ourselves from new ideas. He does warn that it usually takes the pantsers twice as long to get there, and they run the risk of abandoning the whole thing before they do! So maybe a little bit of planning might help?

Here's what I would love for us to do. Let's each come up with an image or metaphor for the way we approach character development, making it as visual as we can. I'll start:

It is like getting a glimpse of that intriguing person across the room at a delicious cocktail party full of sparkling, fascinating people. This one draws me in above all others. I make my way over to her, a glass of good wine in hand to offer her. I find something to comment on -- her brilliant laugh, her stilettos, her way of observing the crowd -- and she is at once comfortable with me. I begin to draw her out, and before you know it, we have found a settee in the corner and we are leaning toward each other as she talks and I listen. With my whole body. My head and my senses are teeming with her, and I know that as soon as I leave the party, I will pull out a fresh journal that somehow reminds me of her, and I will begin to make notes. In the margin I jot down the next time we'll see each other. Because we will. 

Cocktail party

All right, ladies. Show us what you're workin' with. Who knows? You may find out that you inspire someone here who's floundering in a pool of sinking characters who simply need to be revived.  Can't wait to hear.



Nancy Rue





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PPS: My keyboard is dyslexic. -SK


PS: Natasha: Sounds liek you and I have a lot in common!


I'm not sure I can explain my process. My characters are...weird. For instance, I'll be walking across campus, minding my own business, when suddenly, walking in step beside me is a flying horse. He twitches a wing, nodding in time with our steps (as horses do), following the conversations, and then he turns to me and tells me what he thinks. Or, I'm in the back seat of a car travelling from one city to the next on a deep winter night. There, shadowed under the evergreens, black against the snow, is my main character, cloaked and on horseback atop a rocky ridge, glaring down at the passing cars. Why is he there? What does he want? What is he thinking? And then I just write it all down. I'm not sure this is the most efficient way to write. It may be a very round-about method. And I may also have a slight problem with horses. -Skeli

Nancy Rue

Yeah, Colleen, when I choose supporting characters they almost always play a role in the making of the point. It could very possibly be that WE are each placed in this life to make a point, and we're real, well-rounded characters. I'm thinking just play with that and see where it takes you. You think?


Oh, Natasha, that SO is a process. Your process. Embrace it! I struggle with characters because I tend to be agenda-driven and so DO NOT want to be. That means creating characters to make a point. And I don’t want to do that either! But then...even as I’m writing this...what if that IS my process and I’m fighting it. What if I would just let that flow? It doesn’t mean the story and plot have to be preachy. That depends on the writing itself. Hmmmm. I love this space.

Nancy Rue

It absolutely counts, Natasha. You've discovered the mystery of being a fiction writer, and at a very young age. I REALLYw ant you to come to the Young Women Writers Retreat in Colorado in April (17-19) It's all about entering the mystery. I also love that you're here on the blog. You add so much.

Natasha Prokopchuk

I love that you've asked this question of us, as I've actually been thinking about this a lot lately. Brainstorming for my protagonist does NOT work for me at this point in my life... instead, I have to be really patient, and she just COMES to me. If I try to summon her, it doesn't work. It feels fake if I try. There's also something special about reading that tends to trigger this- reading a particularly phenomenal book makes me feel certain sides of me intensely (passion, wonder, cynicism, etc etc), and then that solidifies into a person. This is very ineffectual and makes me feel like I have no control over my writing, so I'm pretty sure there is a better way... but then again, when the character appears, I can't even describe how amazing it feels. I get a scene or an overwhelming feeling and then I write it down from the part of me that is that character, and then she is just there, alive. I also have a very hard time separating the protagonist from myself (I write in the first person, present tense)- even though her personality and appearance and behaviour may not be mine, her essence is, and I think these characters that come to me are just different parts of myself that show up in unique ways. And then, I have to do brainstorming for secondary characters, but they also just kind of flow out of the first character- her world is just kind of there, and I just have to make the blurry figures a little sharper, more specific.
I am just starting to begin to figure out my process- I don't think what I just explained even COUNTS as a process- but for now this is what mine looks like.

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