Sunday, May 22, 2011

Character Harvesting

Photo courtesy of Vera KratochvilA few days ago, a friend asked if I'd write a short story for The Pink Snowbunnies in Hell Flash Fiction Anthology. I thought about it for a few minutes, and replied, "Sure, why not?" To my surprise, the writing was easy. From the time I accepted the challenge to the time I finished the initial draft, I'd traversed the entire 1,000-word piece in a little less than two hours (I would have finished sooner had I known the ending). It also didn't help that I had to cram my ideas into a finite space, and choose my words wisely to avoid running past the 1,000-word limit (I still wound up with over 1,200 words). To begin, I only had a piece of narrative in mind, like an incomplete sentence. I dove in, forcing myself to discover the punch line to the half-baked adventure.

I'm sure any author would be pleased with the investment of two hours for a rough draft. So what did I do right?

While it would have been easier if I'd known more about the plot, the real timesaver was my familiarity with the characters. By drawing upon characters I'd used in the past, it was easy to focus on the plot. I could already hear their voices, see them in my head; it was only a matter of time before the story solved its own equation.

This got me thinking: why don't I do this for all of my future works? By stockpiling an arsenal of well-defined characters, you can move from one story to the next seamlessly. That's the idea at least, to have one less thing to worry about. This saves a ton of time; changing characters is like changing hats, and more of the troublesome details (past history, idiosyncrasies, etc.) can be hammered out beforehand, limiting interruptions to your flow.

What I am proposing is merely a process improvement to simplify your story universe. By harvesting an entire stable of characters, you are more likely to write about them. You will make the time because they are a part of you, and demand their story to be told. You've made the investment, why not reap the rewards? Hopefully you'll be able to shut them up afterwards.

As writers, none of us are at a loss for ideas; oftentimes they come like the flood. Infrequently do I use this tactic to sketch a specific character or setting; they seem to be lumped in with the story concept, and with varying effectiveness. What I usually wind up with is a piece of a character, perhaps a name only, their voice or some distinguishable feature about them. Rarely do I tell myself, "Hey, you know that character you dreamed up the other day? Although you're working on another story, why don't you write down everything you know about them and file it away? That way they will be ready when called upon."

Up until now, I've focused entirely on plot (I guess I'm both a plotter and a plodder); however, my stories are not plot-driven--it's probably 60/40 in favor of my characters. Typically I organize my thoughts about characters afterwards, but this should be first thing I do, or at least done in equal measure.

Here's what it's really all about: organization, and I need to get better at it.

To illustrate, I've an idea for a short story called Pale where a creature spiders down the moonlight and crawls into a tree. Its arms are long and lanky, and have keen, retracting claws. It does not have eyes, only rows and rows of wicked teeth. I have no idea what it is; that's all I know thus far. Someone spots it in the forest, but I know even less about that unfortunate soul. By crystallizing the characters in my head, it serves as a motivator to enter the story later.

Of course, this is not limited to characters alone; the same should be done with settings, systems, and virtually any object that you intend to write about. In fact, by thinking of your story as an assembly of objects significantly improves your ability to compartmentalize issues, and devote better focus to the things that need them.

Writers like Georges Simenon, one of the most prolific authors of all time, stockpiled details about people and places and how things worked (mostly in his head). He constantly did this, and when it came to the act of writing, even though he knew little about the story itself, he weaved fascinating tales in a short space of time. Why? Because he lived and breathed his work. In many ways his novels wrote themselves, and if one were to follow his fine example, and become magnets of information, the complexity of the writing process would be significantly reduced.

The daunting task of organization should begin with your characters; ultimately it's all about the character's journey. Do you remember the plot from Raiders of the Lost Ark? Probably. And the principal character, Indiana Jones? Definitely. How about Gladiator? Getting a little murky? But who can forget Maximus or Leonidas from 300. It seems the other details are fair game to the fog of memory. Ultimately we are writing about someone, and the more vivid they become, the easier the writing.

Your story needs a voice. Give it one. This is the first step to realizing your dreams.


  1. Great post Scott. For me, I write from scene to scene...not a lot of plotting and planning. When a scene comes to me, I jot it down in my outline where it might fit in. I think each of us has a way of doing things and we all tweak those ways as we learn what works for us best.

  2. I hope I'm not sending confusing messages here. The reason I wrote it was just to emphasize how important it is to do develop characters. I felt that once I had this part squared away, I could write infinite books about them, and the writing was easier/more enjoyable.