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Novel prepping – week 1 – Characters

Writing.ie | Guest Bloggers | To Boldly Go

Colin Weldon

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So for the next few weeks, I’m going to be working hard on getting the first draft of a new novel written. I’m going to take you through my prep all the while trying to keep my sanity. Currently, I’m at stage one, or what I like to call the “Come on man, you can do this” phase. I’m sticking with the science fiction genre and tend to begin with several questions. Firstly, whose story is this? At this stage in development, all I really have is a shell. The layers have yet to reveal themselves but out of nothingness pops into existence a form. This form has shape, thought and unbeknownst to this form a great adventure ahead of herself. I begin with a little history by opening up my Scrivner file and giving this form a name. Names are tricky but an enjoyable part of creating a new fictional life form.


Scrivner has a feature which allows you to generate hundreds of names based on cultural and geographical locations. It’s a great feature but be aware that you can get lost for days searching for names so just pick something that works and don’t get too bogged down in it. I rarely change the name of a character once they’ve been brought to life, it seems cruel in a way, but I digress. After maybe a half hour of searching, Captain Tamara Cartwright lands on the page. So who is she? What year does she live in? What are her wants, needs, obstacles both interior and exterior? Why is it so important to follow her journey as I run her through the extreme gauntlet she’s about to go through and most importantly why does the reader care? There must be empathy, relatability, and connection with this character. You are asking the reader to follow a stranger. Someone they have never met. What’s the first thing you ask when you meet someone new? “Tell me about yourself” I generally start with a physical description, based on some of her life experiences, what she does for a living, what world she inhabits. This may change later on, but to create the image of the character in your mind, so they actually exist, it’s crucial. Does she live in a world where there is no gravity? How would that affect how she looks? Does she work with her hands? Does she have a physical job? I generally try to write strong female protagonists, a by-product of growing up with science fiction legends like Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and or Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Conor.


A handy way of visualising characters, if you haven’t already, is by searching for images online of people you think might resemble that person and copying that photo into the character file on Scrivner. It’s also a handy way to quickly snapshot certain secondary characters so that a mental map of who’s who begins to form. This may not work for everyone, but I find it useful. Especially when you’re fifteen chapters in and all of a sudden someone’s hair, build or eye colour suddenly changes, and the details begin slipping through the cracks. Every character needs a journey, a mission, a reason to fight, a reason to exist on paper whether that journey is a physical or emotional one so here’s my next step. My character is lifted off the drawing board and dropped into a universe. This is the fun part. There’s always been a fine line between much of science fiction and fantasy because the possibilities of the unknown are boundless. While I like to keep my stories as grounded as possible, there’s always some sense of fantasy that crops into any space opera because while the principals may make some sort of sense, much of what exists, including many of the forces that work against the protagonist have very little chance of actually existing in the real world.


Anyway, the critical thing in developing a strong character is fully understanding how they would react to the pressures and stresses they are about to be put under. What hidden strengths they have to find that may go against a dark and unbearable internal emotional struggle. I tend to see that you discover more about the attributes of a character the more you spend time with them. Draft after draft reveals new and exciting ideas to layer on their psyche. My advice would be not to worry too much about it in your first draft because most of that first run through will eventually be discarded so if you’re feeling a little lost with how your character reacts just keep writing and when your first read through is finished you’ll start to question who your character really is. The next draft or even the several after that tends to reveal the real gold nuggets. Create them, get them down on paper and drop them in the meat grinder and see what happens.


Forward we go 🙂




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