Who are You?
It’s been awhile since I’ve discussed parts of my writing process, so I thought I’d share my latest slice ‘o’ writing life.
After putting down nearly 10,000 new words on the second (or so) incarnation of Wolf’s Tail, I began to feel a nagging sense of dissatisfaction. While there were improvements over the last iteration, I just didn’t feel the story was all it could be. Looking over what I’d written and analyzing my process revealed something:
I’m still uncertain about the people I’m writing about.
My output has been a lot like describing visuals seen through a fogged window:
I think her sweater is blue. No, wait; she’s a Smurf. Never mind, it’s just the ocean.
Actually, the problem was never so obvious.
It was more like being asked to illustrate the guy working a few cubicles down from me. I could spit out his physical description with ease and even name his favorite soda (Mountain Dew). But I couldn’t tell you what his dreams are, what motivates him to get up in the morning, what he fears, or what lengths he would go to keep some of those fears from becoming reality.
As a reader, I don’t give two rabbit pellets about a character whose most intimate secret is his sugary beverage of choice. Sure, it may add color and tell me a little about him, but if you want me to get through a whole novel, I need something more to sustain interest and feel for the guy.
Without a doubt, writing through Wolf’s Tail has helped me divine a few of those “something more”s, but overall, I was still writing about “people doing things while feeling emotions.” Vapid words, not specific enough to evoke emotions in a reader when we all know it’s the specific that breathes life into fiction.
How to remedy? my brain asked.
Make friends with your characters! my brain replied. Sit down, buy them a drink, learn their stories.
And so I’ve spent the past few nights fleshing out my characters and putting together bios. Nancy Kress’ Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint has excellent starter templates and I highly recommend her book. Her bios are normally broken up into two parts–one for basic facts and another which delves further into the character’s mindset–but I’ve combined them in my example below.
Already, I’ve gained much more insight and a renewed confidence in what I need to write. I’m doing as much of this as possible for my major and supporting characters, because as author Karen Lord handily shows:
It’s also good to remember that these bios are neither static nor carved in stone. Think of them as a feedback loop. They get you writing what you need to write which helps you discover more along the way.
Without further ado, here’s the bio for Wolf Tail’s primary antagonist:
Name: Wallace Griffin
Birthplace: Louisville, Kentucky
Marital Status: None
Children and their ages: None
General appearance (whatever seems useful):
6’4” and broad shouldered. Slightly balding in the front. Dirty blond hair is always cut short and combed cleanly. Green eyes, pale skin. Always maintains a well-trimmed mustache, even while living in primitive conditions. Deep, gruff voice (think Sam Elliot).
Living arrangements (i.e., lives with wife and three young children; rents a ramshackle apartment alone; has tens in nomadic tribe with three concubines):
Lives out of a saddlepack and canvas tent wherever he’s digging for gold.
Occupation, including name of employer (if applicable):
Was a flatboatman, then a collier, then a Missouri Militiaman, then a Missouri Mounted volunteer, a flatboatman again, then a gold prospector.
Degree of skill at occupation (beginner, really competent, experienced but a bumbler, etc.):
A clever, hard worker at every job he undertakes. His imposing stature and silver tongue helped him work his way to the top of wherever he happened to be.
Character’s feeling about his occupation (loves it, hates it, regards it as “just a job,” has mixed feelings, is actively searching for other employment):
Wallace sees every job as an opportunity and his current position is never good enough—only a means to an end.
Family/General background (whatever you think is important: ethnicity, siblings’ names, parents’ names, social status, clan affiliation, total repugnance toward everybody he knew before the age of twelve):
Born William Cain in 1816 to an ordinary family, his first job was building and operating flatboats out of Louisville, Kentucky. William worked with a regular crew of men to carry hemp, tobacco, and whiskey down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans.
In 1836, one night outside of a New Orleans saloon, William killed two Creoles in what he claimed was self-defense. The law disagreed. A wanted man, William Cain changed his name to Wallace Griffin and high-tailed it to the Missouri frontier.
He found himself in Clay County, working as a collier, side-by-side with Glenn McCallahan. Soon bored with the job, Wallace joined the Missouri Militia to fight the Mormons in 1838, honing his shooting skills with Kentucky rifles and various pistols. He was commended by his peers and officers alike.
After the war, he felt it was safe enough to return to flatboating until the Mexican-American War heated up. Wallace entered the 1st Regiment of Missouri Mounted Volunteers as a Sergeant due to his previous service.
During the war, he led a squad of soldiers that included Boyd Haw, Stephen Fromm, Solomon Clark, and Glenn McCallahan.
After being discharged from the war in 1847, Wallace grew depressed upon his return to Missouri and the flatboat routine. News of the Gold Rush reached his ears and he knew he had to follow, convincing his previous subordinates to join him.
What three or four things does this person value most in life? (i.e., success, money, family, God, love, integrity, power, peace and quiet):
Pride, Vengeance, Power
What three things does he most fear:
Being made a fool of, loss of control over his destiny, failure
What is this person’s basic underlying attitude about life?
(i.e. “Things will usually turn out all right,” or “They’re all out for themselves,” or “It’s best to expect nothing because then you won’t be disappointed,” etc.):
A man leads or a man gets trampled.
What does he need to know about another person in order to accept that other as “all right” and trustworthy:
Wallace needs to know that the other person has a semblance of backbone, willing to take chances. But not too much backbone so as to completely challenge Wallace.
What would cause this person more pain than anything else possible:
Someone or something taking away his sense of power and self-righteousness.
What would this person consider the most wonderful thing that could ever happen to him:
To see that he has molded others into versions of himself.
What three words would she use to describe herself, accurate or not:
Skilled shooter, father figure, quick on his feet
How accurate is his self-description:
Mostly accurate. Wallace is seen as a father figure to those who served under him since he exhibited a strong sense of fortitude and looked after them. He was also renowned in the military for sharpshooting and quick-draw skills. He’s only sometimes quick on his feet. About half the time, he can adapt to unexpected situations. The other times, he resorts to brute force with differing consequences.
What organization most embodies this person’s values? (i.e., Mensa, Daughters of the American Revolution, her church, Aryan Pride, PTA):
Any organization which lets him lead others and feed from their attention and admiration.
Does he belong to this group? If not, why not:
I hope you find this template as useful as I have. If you have any favorite questions you use to probe your characters, I’d love to hear about them.