Along with the writing I do for this blog, I’ve also been working on two story ideas that will (hopefully) turn into novels. I’m trying to move past the planning stages to the writing portion, which has always been the biggest struggle for me in the past. Even when I was little I would come up with elaborate backstories for my Barbies but then when it was time to actually play with them I got bored quickly. So I’m trying to break my old, bad habits. At the moment I’m getting to know my characters better, which is both more fun and more difficult than I expected. I have writer friends whose characters talk at them, forcing them to scramble to transcribe as much as possible so they don’t forget. Unfortunately, my characters aren’t so helpful. Usually they flit around the edges of my thoughts while I throw ideas at them and see what sticks, like an imaginary game of 20 questions. Or those magnetic dartboard games where the darts fall right off the board unless you throw perfectly (which I never do).
One thing that’s been helpful for me so far is secret Pinterest boards for characters, setting, mood, and plot ideas, but after a while they tend to get cluttered. I recently stumbled on Emily Henderson’s Material Girls series, where she makes design mood boards for imaginary clients. (This one is my favorite.) I loved that idea, and since I’m kind of obsessed with moodboards/ inspiration boards anyway I thought making a more permanent (but still digital — at least until I get a printer) inspiration board for some of my characters would be a great reference point. Here’s my moodboard for Elsbeth, the 12 year-old protagonist of my fantasy story:
Elsbeth lives with her grandfather in a small village (in either Germany or France — I’m having a hard time deciding), and she’s just old enough to start wondering if the fairy tales her grandfather tells her are true. She works for the local brewer 4 days a week, mostly helping brew the beer and mead and taking care of the bees and goats. Adanne promised to give one of the baby goats to her next spring, and Elsbeth is beyond excited. She’s resourceful and spunky (try to think of a better word… fiery?), and is familiar with the forest that borders the village thanks to frequent trips with her grandfather. (These visits will be really important later in the story.) She’s fiercely loyal, with a hot temper and a vindictive streak. She’s not one to be left out of anything.
Favorites: taking care of the goats, gingerbread cookies, her Grandfather’s clocks (and dollhouse? Other toys?), her Grandfather’s stories, her friends (need to think more about them)
Dislikes: Thunderstorms (is that when her parents died?), bullies, being kept out of things, people thinking she’s stupid
I wasn’t expecting it to be so tricky writing such a short summary! I’m so used to hearing “show, don’t tell” that it’s actually kind of hard to just describe my character briefly. And while this is obviously veeery rough, it’s actually showed me a lot of the areas I need to think about more. For instance, I need to find more dislikes and flaws for Elsbeth besides the stereotypical “I don’t like sewing, or washing my hair, or clothes or other girly things like that. I’m not like other girls.” This worked out really well, and I think I’ll do it for some of my other characters, since it helps me figure out where to go next.
I also love Chuck Wendig’s list of 25 Things You Should Know About Character (word to the wise, Wendig doesn’t shy away from profanity or the ick-factor, so if profanity-laced writing advice isn’t your thing, I might skip it). I also really liked this article about 3 goals for every character, and Yeah Write! has a great archive of posts about characterization if you’re looking for more resources.
What’s your process for character/ idea development for writing? Do you think mood boards are helpful, or do you think they’re only for designers and visual artists?