Developing Characters, or: What Doesn’t Kill You…

The other morning I had a guest over for brunch.  In other words, I had to tidy the apartment.  The problem was that my apartment was already tidy. 

This is because I’m writing a book, and writing a book requires time to think.  Most often, taking “time to think” results in my getting caught up retightening the legs of my chairs, vacuuming the couch, cleaning the stove, polishing the floor, and even cutting and filing pieces of wood to hold up tapestries.  With steak knives.  In other words, procrastination leads to a tidy house. 

(Of course, too much predictability is boring, so when my original mission is to do housework, I artfully procrastinate by reading.)

Please, don’t try this at home.  I am a master and cannot promise you’ll have the same results.

So there I was, looking at my altogether far too tidy living room and thinking: I need time to think.  And then I thought, why, I really should clean the coffee table.  A lady never entertains guests on a laptop-and-paper-strewn coffee table.

Now, my coffee table is a Moroccan brass tray table.  In other words, it carries heat.  I always place a large and slim volume between my table and my laptop.  As a lady never overheats her books, I have a constant rotation of books.  Hard-covers being preferable for lap-top writing, I use paperbacks usually for table-top writing.

And so it was that Frog and Toad was on the couch, and Writing the Breakout Novel: Workbook was on the table.  I squinted at it, not out of suspicion, mind you, but because I’d just switched on the lights.  Then I sat down and flipped it open listlessly.  (I was, as you’ll recall, currently tasked with tidying up, and it fell to my lot to procrastinate by reading.) 

The book fell open to the section on antagonists.  I read a few lines of the worksheet Maass, the author, wanted me to fill out.

Meh, I thought. My antagonists are just fine.  I yawned.  And then an idea began to niggle.  I slammed down the book, yanked Frog and Toad back from the shelf and slipped it under the laptop.  And began answering the worksheet.  Egad.  It was amazing.

And bizarre.  I would read a question and think, but I already know… and then I’d type the question anyway and suddenly the groove would kick in.  I’d write sometimes totally what I knew, what I expected…  And then he’d ask me to subvert it, to fight my character.  And suddenly…great stuff.

I’d think I was rehashing, but suddenly—D’s future opened up for me.  I realized what was in store for him—in detail.

I was thrilled and horrified.  I’d just broken thoroughly into Act III.  I knew, finally, what he didn’t.  I had an emotional moment.  I decided to put all my characters through the process—protagonist and antagonist alike. 

And then, of course, as that meant writing, I cleaned the stove instead.


Okay, fine, so I did keep on writing.  Time-to-think rules don’t apply when writers have actually caught hold of a wriggly little fairy of a genius insight, and indeed one must often crush the desire to “think” too much over the stove or under the furniture.  Writing requires that key ingredient my dad used to tell me about:  Glue in the ass.

Anyway, this breakthrough’s been amazing.  I’ve been racing with Act III scenes and have plot points written up for others.  My antagonists are ready for their face-offs, and my heroes are heading to the denouement.  I’m exhilarated to feel it take shape.  It’s a great nexus—my vision, which I’d felt impaired for a long time, is back; and with it my sense of patience is restored.  Emotional truth and structure are both in sight, and the plot’s sense of inevitability is back—although I hope not its predictability.  We’ll see.  🙂

I am utterly realizing anew what they mean when they say that the first draft is the writer telling the story to themselves, and that the subsequent drafts are writing it for others.  The first draft is when I find out what happens, really.  Only then can I craft it into something that will be enjoyable to read.  Then finally is the time to exert power over the text, because I’m not floundering in my own sea of questions.  My spidey-senses tell me that that’ll be a whopper of an experience–rewriting and editing.  🙂  But we’re not there yet.  We’re finishing Act III, mehopes.

Other stuff on my to-do list are:  two protagonists that need development and three secondary characters that need work—one of them I have decided is mostly invisible because she’s still the wrong person.  It took me several versions of M to find him fitting, and longer for him to start to move into himself, to develop his grays.  H isn’t there yet.  Maybe H has to go, and someone else take her place.  I wonder how M finally worked and how I can make my other protagonists stronger like him…

Welcome back, heady rush of story!  Welcome back euphoria!  Goodbye housekeeping!!!  🙂

How’re you guys doing?

View from Central Park, New York City


About sputnitsa

Born in the US, I grew up in Africa and the West Indies, and returned stateside in my teens. I've worked in international development, social justice and democracy work, and inclusivity training both domestically and overseas. I have served in Peace Corps, where I experienced my first Russian invasion, after which I volunteered with refugees and mentored youth. I vacation climbing minarets and mountains, as well as exploring theaters, museums and parks. Here in New York, I produce short films, direct short plays, and write.
This entry was posted in antagonists, character development, characters, discipline, editing, fiction, finding your own way, first drafts, life, perils of housework, plot development, scenes, writing, writing exercise and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Developing Characters, or: What Doesn’t Kill You…

  1. ralfast says:

    I walk, and walk, and walk some more. Eat, listen to music and pace even more.

  2. ralfast says:

    Oh and spend a lot of time on deviantart collecting pics for future reference/inspiration.

  3. Kasia says:

    H’llo! 🙂 Many thanks for your e-mail avec l’adresse! 🙂 Unfortunately…I sent your Xmas card to your mum’s address, so many apologies. However! I shall send you amusing postcards and wotnot to you via the snail mail, so that in amongst the bills there will be some sunshine…or something like this…
    I want to wish you all the very best for 2010 and beyond. 🙂 Success will be yours. x

    • sputnitsa says:

      You too, babe!!! 🙂 Real mail by snail mail is a treat. 🙂 Can’t wait for it 🙂 And by the by, people are waiting on the cusps of their toenails to see photos of your new place 🙂 🙂

      • Kasia says:

        🙂 I shall endeavour to find you some nice postcards. 🙂

        Who are these ‘people’ who are waiting on the cusps of their toenails to see piccies of our new place? Wouldn’t happen to be your mum would it…? 😉

  4. Sput,

    I humbly invite you to my apartment where you may do all the cleaning/thinking you like. As an extra bonus, I shall supply all the German coffee and chocolate your heart desires.

    May I ask if you also do windows?

    • sputnitsa says:

      Dearest Gypsy,

      I do do windows. Of course, a lady will say anything when offered “all the German coffee and chocolate” her heart desires. And, being a lady, I must respect our traditions.

      By the by, not that I’m urging you to abandon your pitiful defence of Berlin or anything–far be it from me *cough*–but have you any idea what WONDERS are housed in the Morgan Library and Museum on New York’s lovely Madison Avenue? We’re talking hand-written manuscripts of Jane Austen, William Blake, OSCAR WILDE *heart*, Charles Dickens, etc etc etc. Yeah.

      In terms of booking your ticket, I hear baggage containing German coffee and chocolate is more likely to reach its destination safely.

      I’m just sayin. 🙂

      • Aha! I knew you had a nefarious reason for obsessively trying to get me over there.

        But I am proud you can admit to the superiority of Deutsch Kaffee und Schokolade.

        • sputnitsa says:

          No-one of reason could place US coffee or chocolate on the same level or even on a nearby stratosphere as German coffee and chocolate. Nay, it is far lower, on a much, much more execrable level, in fact.


          You are welcome to bring goodies when you come to our wondrous city. ;-p

  5. ralfast says:

    German chocolate….aaaaargh!


    Happy New Year y’all!


    • sputnitsa says:

      Heheheh–what chocolate do you favor, and what German chocolate have you had?

      And yep– HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!! 🙂

      • I’m not sure if I could pick a favorite. They’re all so delectably creamy and rich…

      • ralfast says:

        Mostly in cake, as in triple fudge German chocolate cake, especially the dark chocolate. Swiss too, especially coffee beans covered in softer, Swiss chocolate, but alas, you just can’t eat but one, and then you can’t sleep a wink!

        • sputnitsa says:

          Belgian coffee, too. Yum, yum, yum…

          Imagine how delicious those delicacies would taste in New York City… Even better. 🙂 Which reminds me to return home to my European chocolate ostensibly bought for guests… 🙂

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