It’s a question writer’s get asked a lot: what comes first? The story or the characters? The answer for me is usually a bit of both. They tend to arrive together. I’ll have an idea of the kind of story I want to tell and the characters who will be involved. That’s how it always begins, but when it comes time to planning the book, I always develop the characters first.
I can’t go ahead with the story until I know exactly who it’s going to be about. That means getting to know the characters in detail before I start. This is probably one of the most exciting parts of the process. I liken it to going on holiday. It’s the moment when you’ve decided where you’re going and you’ve bought the tickets. Now, you start looking forward to the trip and making plans for what you’ll do when you get there.
I always start with the basics – physical features. It’s a great help to know exactly what your characters look like. For the leads I’ll often work with the likeness of a real person: a friend, an actor, a model, someone from an article. If possible, I like to save a photograph of that person to my notebook. If I base a character on the guy who works in my local coffeeshop then that’s out of the question, unless I want to get into stalker territory, which is not happening. But say I use an actor, I’ll find four different photos to work with – different expressions, smiling, moody, etc. This is a huge help for the next stage, where I build up their stats: age, hair and eye colour, height, weight, chest and waist size, etc. This is also where I note any tattoos, scars, piercings, any distinctive physical features. If the character is going to feature in any sex scenes then I need to know a lot more: body type, hairy, smooth, dick size, etc. I need to know everything.
My character notes for Logan in Written in Scars
A lot of the stuff detailed above won’t make it into a finished story, but it’s the kind of detail I need to get the character clear in my own mind, and I can’t progress to the story without knowing it. I won’t want to, because I really love this part.
I create a list of characters and flesh them out in this fashion. Not everyone needs such deep development. A minor character may need no more than half a page to fix them in my mind, but all the main players have to fully developed. Once I have them, I’m ready to looks at the story.
My character notes for Sam in Written in Scars
I always work with an outline, even for a short story. I know I lot of writers prefer to fly by the seat of their pants and see where it takes them, but I’m the opposite. I’m a control freak. Ask my husband. If we set off on a trip without a clear plan of where we’re going, what we’ll do there, and a back-up plan just in case, I get mega stressed. It’s the same with writing. I work out the beats of every chapter before I ever write the first page. That’s not to say things can’t change. Like that road trip, if you spot something interesting along the way, it’s good to take a detour to check it out.
This what works best for me. It won’t work for everyone. But if you’re a writer and you’ve ever felt intimidated by that first blank page (or computer screen) give it a try. It’s much easier to get started when you already your characters and their story inside out.