Sometimes a novel gets off track half way through the first draft and we don’t know why it isn’t working. At that point, it may be a good time to take a look at the characters and rediscover what motivates them.
A character sketch is a tool that can help solidify the story in the planning stage. It is also a way to rein in characters who have taken over the story to no good effect. Once I remind myself of who my characters are and what their secrets were at the outset, I can get them back to the path that will take the novel to its completion.
Sometimes, I need to remind myself why they commit the sometimes heinous acts they do.
It’s a good idea to make a character sketch of the main players with all the important points mentioned, but not too detailed. With a paragraph for each character, the document isn’t too long. For example, two good characters might be:
Isobel (Izzy) Gardner: 41, vegan, novelist, lives in Seattle with her husband, Parker. Writes fantasy novels, has a deadline for next book. Her stepsister lives when them when she isn’t on tour, putting stress on an already difficult marriage.
Claire Claymont: 39, world renowned pianist, with secret opiates addiction. She is obsessively in love with Dominic, obsessed to the point she would do anything to keep him. Insists on living with Izzy when she isn’t touring.
Once the character sketches are out of the way, I do a short synopsis of the story as I intended it go. Basically, it’s a few words that just hit the high points of the novel, a few paragraphs that briefly tell me the story as I imagine it will go. An example:
The inadvertent revelation of Claire’s unplanned pregnancy throws Izzy’s plans for a productive working summer and the reconciliation of her marriage into chaos. Claire’s refusal to name the father threatens each of the three men.
Someone will attempt murder. Not sure yet who, but it will be one of the three men.
This might tell me that some events I have written into the story need to be cut, as they are what I think of as NaNoWriMo fluff—the stuff that falls out when I am writing stream-of-conscious and not looking at my outline.
I go back and look at the original motives of each character, and if the new elements are good and a side-character should have more prominence, I expand their character sketch, detailing what motivates them and why they are more important than a character I first thought would work. This is where doing a new character sketch can resurrect a stalled novel.
Motivation is everything. Motivation is the character’s quest to fulfill his/her deepest needs.
- What do these people have to lose?
- Who has the most to lose?
- What is their greatest fear?
- What is their greatest hope?
John Pierce: 42, Claire’s cousin, a licensed doctor, he practices exclusively by volunteering with Doctors Without Borders for half the year, and the rest of the time he works as a well-known painter/illustrator. Illustrates Izzy’s book covers. His longtime relationship has disintegrated, and he is trying to process that. Served as an Army doctor in Afghanistan, has PTSD from his tour of duty, which is worsened by his missions in third world countries. Mentally exhausted, he is conflicted, considering leaving medicine for good. His subconscious motivation for art is escapism.
His wife has left him. As a way of dealing with the failure of his marriage, he engages in some risk-taking behavior, such as storm surfing, a hobby embraced by Parker and Dominic.
John’s conscious motivation–hopes to use the time to make a decision regarding his medical career.
Each of the main characters gets an expanded paragraph.
Then I sit down and consider how I want to use symbolism to emphasize the environment and the emotional chaos of those people. If I were writing this novel, I would want to bring out the Gothic feeling of the summer house, the unspoken undercurrents, and fractured relationships. I make a list of symbolic things to support the atmosphere I’m trying to convey:
- Jigsaw puzzles – many dramas going on, but it’s hard to see the pattern until the pieces are put together.
- Broken and cracked objects visible in the landscape and environment.
- Mist and fog rising from the sea in the mornings and evening – everyone hides something behind a smiling façade.
- Scenes and fragments of interactions viewed in mirrors – Parker attempts to divert Izzy’s suspicions with “smoke and mirrors.”
- Izzy’s unfinished novel is an subconscious mirror of real events she doesn’t seem to recognize.
Nothing that muddies the story arc needs to remain in the story unless it is important to advance the plot. If it is necessary but isn’t working well, then you must rewrite that plot point until it pushes the story forward.
In my work, a plot twist that is not working generally has failed because I have stuffed too much detail into it. The things that make a character feel conflicted are important, as are their negative qualities, but minute details don’t matter.
The downside to the work I produce during NaNoWriMo is that much of it requires massive reshaping. The positive side is that some of my best ideas for later projects seem to spew forth during that month of madness—it’s just that they are unformed and unwieldy, and may just be an exercise in creative writing, not a novel.
And that’s okay too—it’s good to admit to yourself that some words were written just for you.