Pre-Writing: It’s All About The Character

Thursday, October 25

I usually have at least a vague kernel of an idea as to who my main characters are, a kernel which I will be able to dig around in and coax into some sort of personage. Although with MORTAL HEART, I do have a decent sense of Annith and the other characters in the book since they were secondary characters in the previous two books.

This is also the stage wherein I pull out two fresh, shiny unused notebooks. (Have I mentioned I am a notebook junkie? Lest you doubt, I have included a picture of ALL my His Fair Assassin notebooks.) Not sure why I always start with two; sometimes one is for my official ideas and the second one is for playing around with ideas, or sometimes one is for the stuff I know is absolute, not-changeable, and the other is more of an evolving canvas.

For me, the writing of a book begins with character. Even though I have a core idea, I need to spend some time with the main character, getting to know her, understand her and what sorts of experiences have shaped her. Sadly, very little of this makes it into the book in an overt way, but it is essential in how it shapes her world view and character.

I have a variety of sources I draw from for these initial questions, but some of my favorites are from Donald Maass’s WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL and from a Michael Hague workship I took at the RWA National Conference a couple of years ago.

Hague suggests that the internal journey of a character is a transformation from persona (the construct that they show the world) to their essence (their true nature), which feels very ‘true’ for me and the sorts of books I enjoy.

So, onto the questions.

What is the character’s longing? What is their deeply held desire they’re only paying lip service to, that they’re not pursing. Now some characters are so shut down or disconnected from their selves that they don’t even have a longing. Instead they have a need, a hole inside that must be filled.

And that hole is usually caused by the answer to the next question…

What is the character’s wound? What past traumas have shaped them and profoundly altered the way they see the world?

I spend a LOT of time journaling about that, building the character’s past (or uncovering it) so that I can intimately know them and their strengths and weaknesses.

Another set of questions revolve around, What is the character’s warped belief about themselves or the world? How has my character’s wound shaped his way of seeing the world? Of seeing other people?

So for example, Ismae’s core belief is that her only value or worth is in her usefulness as a tool to her organization. In fact, she clings to the fact that she’s a tool and uses it to disconnect from her emotions, her self. If she clings to the fact that she’s a tool—separate from the needs and desires other people are subject to, then she doesn’t have to admit they are lacking in her life, or that she doesn’t feel worthy of them.

This belief is used by the character to keep their emotional fears at bay.

The next set of questions is, What is the characters’ identity? That answer  is often found in the answer to the belief question.

Then I have to dig around some more and ask: What is the character’s essence? When you strip away all the roles they play and the beliefs they protect themselves with, what are they at their core?

Sometimes, early on, it’s hard to know what the essence of the character is, so I rephrase the question as: Who would the character be if she had the courage? If she wasn’t afraid of anything?

And then of course the story will be about the character’s movement from persona to essence, learning to step away from one and embrace the other.


{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Emmy Neal October 26, 2012 at 10:37 am

I LOVE these questions!!! For me, prewriting starts with a plot. I usually end up developing my characters second, by trying to fit strengths and weaknesses needed to make the plot interesting :) I love your question about wounds–I’m definitely going to use that in the future!


Robin October 26, 2012 at 10:40 am

Oh good! So glad they seem useful to you. I can’t remember how I managed to write before I found them. :-) Also, someone just told me the Michael Hague workshop is on video, so I’m going to see if I can find the links and add it to the post.


Bonnie @ A Backwards Story October 31, 2012 at 6:32 am

These posts are so fabulous, thank you!

I love that you, like me, write by hand in notebooks! Everyone always looks at me so oddly when I say I do this, so it makes me happy when others do as well!

I’m planning to do a non-traditional NaNo. I’ve been writing something on and off for a year, and I want to give it a break because it’s too contemporary for my tastes and I really want to be doing fantasy right now. So I decided to start fresh in November and just see where I go. I’m writing to build a foundation and get going, not to hit 50k. Heck, if I hit half of that, I’ll be happy. I won’t write words just to get them out there. I write words I like, that I want to keep. I’m not going to give all my characters three or four names and use each one every time they cross the page just to hit a word count.

I look forward to more of these. Thank you! <3


Robin October 31, 2012 at 8:26 pm

I don’t think I knew you wrote as well as reviewed books, Bonnie! For some reason I was thinking you were a librarian. Anyway, so glad you found the posts helpful! And yes, I am always very excited to find other by-hand writers. It makes me feel like I am part of an old and noble tradition. :-)


Donna Gephart October 31, 2012 at 7:25 pm


This is such great stuff. I’ll be referring to it again and again.

And I sent the link to our son’s teacher, as she’s encouraging her high school students to participate in NaNoWriMo this year.

You, my friend, continue to rock!



Robin October 31, 2012 at 8:28 pm

And you continue to leave the best, most encouraging comments EVER.

I’m so happy that you passed the link on to the teacher! I LOVE that she’s encouraging her students to participate this year! What an empowering teacher, she is.


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