Getting All of Your Ducks in Line

Characters are the life blood of fiction.  Plot is the story but character moves it along. Along with a good plot, a well conceived and believable cast are what readers part the pages for. If we don’t connect with or empathize with the protagonist, or the antagonist does not offer a viable threat or stand in believable opposition then your audience will become bored.  Boredom is not something you want to strive for.

I am a self-described “pantser,” but I do take some time to plan out who my characters are.  My main characters are given their own genealogy of sorts along small details that may never even make it into the final story but are nonetheless rendered ahead of time.  I figure out what they look like, their age, any siblings they might have, significant others (girlfriend, fiance, spouse), children (if applicable) and parents.  The parents might get similar attention but generally a little more abbreviated treatment unless they are major characters as well. I will decide their age, date of marriage, date of death (if applicable), date of divorce (if applicable), date of retirement (if applicable) and where they live or lived. The more expansive the plot, the more work will be required in this approach. If you are writing a multigenerational saga then you might have dozens of characters to flesh out.

Being a graphic designer by trade I am rather visual so I might sit down and chart out an actual timeline for each main character showing significant milestones that took place before and/or during the arc of the actual story. It is a quick, at-a-glance reference that comes in handy more than once and I find to be well worth the extra effort. One reader shared that they put together a dossier and find a stock photo or something in a magazine that matches their character’s description along with all the pertinent information tacked up on a bulletin board much like a suspect board in popular cop dramas.

If you have trouble creating some of those little details on your own, there is the Fake Name Generator (and probably other sites) that you can access on the internet that will randomly provide you with first name, middle initial, last name, made up address, bogus phone and email, mother’s maiden name, birthday, occupation, and blood type among other details. If not good for anything else, it can provide you with a template for the kinds of information you can invent yourself.

It is those little details that you give your characters ahead of time, that will provide them with more dimension.  That small scar above the right eyebrow was acquired from a high stick in a high school lacrosse game. A slight limp due to a broken hip three years prior from a spill on a skating rink. A birthmark on the left thigh that looks a lot like West Virginia.  If you already have those details in your back pocket it frees you up to write your story that is populated with interesting and believable characters.  Get all your ducks in a row and you won’t be looked upon as some sort of quack.

P.S.Happy Mother’s day to all you Moms!

photo: thinkstock

2 comments on “Getting All of Your Ducks in Line

  1. Thanks for this Andy. I can hardly wait to start my own stories. I’ve known so many designers who are only visual. You are inspirational to me.

    • Carolyn, I am glad you are taking something away from my blog. I throw stuff out there and I am not always sure how useful any of it is. Does everybody already do this or know that? So thank you for your encouraging words. I appreciate it.

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