Casting Your Novel

I’ve been working on a couple of new projects lately and characterization has had me pulling my hair out. Why? Because although I’ve got the major players down, one particular story uses a rather large cast and honestly, I am struggling with writing them all so that they’re believable. The other story, well the characters are almost too real and it’s causing me problems with the plot. You see, I have a killer plot, but the characters don’t all fit neatly. So do I take some of them out and replace them? Interesting idea, except that in order for the rest of the cast to work, I need some of these characters. I’ll figure it out. I just need to play with them a little more. I also have two unwritten stories with completely developed casts of characters which I should probably just write, but I hate starting something and not finishing it. Ugh. It’s not a nice place inside my head. It’s loud, dark, and somewhat frightening. This is why I’m yet again writing a post about characterization.

How much thought do you put into your characters before writing? Do you just write and let them carry you through the story? Do you build them first, detailing everything right down to the blackened toenail on their right foot? Really, there is no wrong way to develop a character, but you do have to develop them. Why? Because they have to be believable and dynamic. To have both of those things, in my opinion, you have to put some thought into it. Now I don’t mean writing out character sketches and such. Goodness, I never do that. But I do let them marinate in my mind, invade my sleep, and talk to me for a long time before I begin to write. That is still developing, just not in the anal, organized way that my brain is incapable of doing.

I usually have my characters before I have the story. I can hear the character’s voice, see their face, and feel their emotions long before I have a story to go with them. I rarely write this stuff down. I don’t know why. I suppose by the time I find the right story for them, I’ve listened to them and dreamt about them so often that it’s like writing about my best friend, or myself. For example, Wade Bowen in Dirty Truths (don’t worry, some day hopefully in the not so distant future, you will all know Wade) was in my head for years. When I decided to write this story, I knew instantly Wade would star in it. The only problem was that I didn’t have a female lead. So I had to sit down and decide what kind of woman would fall for a guy with not only a killer body, but a killer’s mind. Yes, Wade is far from lily white. He’s more of a grey shade. Just the way I like my heroes.

I imagine most writers have the story before the character, which makes sense to me. But when I try to do it that way, my characters don’t feel real to me and in the end, the story feels forced. I hate that.

In Once Bitten (don’t worry, I’m retitling this very soon) I have a family of vampires. This family frolicked through my dreams for months before I committed their ‘souls’ to paper. What did I have before I began? Let me go through the cast that wouldn’t leave me alone until I wrote their damn story.

First there’s Aedon, the spoiled Prince who always gets his way. Gabriel, the tortured soul who wouldn’t trade immortality for anything but struggles with the constant battle between his instinct and his conscience…until destiny steps in and settles the argument. Corbyn the deliciously handsome hunk of vampire whose hard candy shell hides a soft, creamy center. Olivia, the sex kitten who can’t seem to remain faithful but is one of the most loyal friends you’ll ever meet. Jacob and Oren, twin souls without a drop of humanity left between them. Malcolm the powerful elder who tires of existing but remains because of his devotion to William, a golden Adonis, who we later find is much more than a pretty face. Jeremy…well, I’ll let you learn more about Jeremy later. His soul is blacker than anyone ever imagined. And Natalie, a small town girl turned big city stripper who falls for Gabriel and is unwillingly sucked into the little family. These are the characters that plagued me for months. Originally I wrote an outline for a much older story with an entirely different cast of characters. It was supposed to be the story detailing Gabriel’s life until his change. But once I began writing, everything felt stilted–wrong, until I realized that I was starting at the wrong place. I needed to begin at the middle and work my way backward and forward.

Now, reading that over it sounds as though my characters dictate the story. Let me clarify: they are characters, not real people holding a gun to my head. I control my story, not them. If something doesn’t fit, it’s gone. If they don’t contribute to the story, they’re set aside for a different story. To be honest, it drives me nuts when I hear writers saying that their characters refuse to cooperate and the story just won’t end because of it or they’ve completely veered off the original outline because their characters had different ideas.

No, writer. The characters are not calling the shots. You are. Don’t you think it makes more sense that your innate writing ability said that your outline is shit and you must go this way to make it work? Give yourself some credit. Characters are nothing without you and their success or failure within the story is either because of your brilliance or your stupidity. Whichever. Just let’s keep it real.

I also think that characterization is as important as plot. In fact, I’ll overlook plot issues if the writer has created characters that practically jump off the page. Not major plot issues, but minor ones. Hell, I’ll even overlook purple prose because of memorable characters. And we all know how much I hate fluffy flowery writing. Actually, many of my favorite characters have been in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. I don’t even recall a lot of the plots but I remember nearly every detail of her characters. Stephen King is another whose characters stay with me long after I’ve forgotten the story. There are others, but I won’t bore you with my slightly dark reading list.

Now that I’ve rambled for a sufficient amount of time, I’m going to throw it to you guys. How do you build your characters? Do you find it easy or is it something you struggle with? Are you one of those people who believe the characters run the show? Why? Help me to understand this phenomenon.

9 thoughts on “Casting Your Novel

  1. This is such a long post with so many tangents to explore that my comment might wander too much.But let me touch on a couple of things.Ref: charactersMy characters do not dictate to me. And it annoys me when people say theirs do. Why? Because they're not taking responsibility for their work. Like you, I have no regrets when cutting entire scenes or characters. If it doesn't work, crying over their demise isn't going to help.I don't mean to sound cold-hearted, but really, it's a cop out to blame the characters. That's like living in a Walter Mitty fantasy.Ref: Large castHoo-boy, a large cast can be a logistics nightmare. The best advice I can give you is to let your characters pull double duty. So if Character A washes dishes and Character B is sucking someone's blood, let the same character do both jobs when possible.And here is where I tell you I'm mad at you. LOL.I took a break from edits (for the next book coming out) hoping to find some fluff blog post but instead I find this one. Now my head hurts.You were no help. 😛

  2. Ref Characters; You are speaking my language. Not coldhearted at all. It's realistic. I feel exactly as you do. It's a cop out.Thanks for the tip on the large cast. I've got about 10 characters that will play major roles, but there are a group of about 50 that has to be there, at least figuratively. I'm having trouble not getting too detailed on the secondary characters. Does that make sense?And last, I shall try to be fluffier in the future. 😉

  3. My characters reveal themselves as I venture forward in the story. I learn about them through trial and error; a lot of what I write gets chucked, but it still helps me understand the background of a particular character. Even though I may not use something, in my mind that experience still occured for a particular character. Having that knowledge allows me to understand how they may react in certain situations. At one point, I wanted to know more about the protagonist then what I covered in the book. I went online and found some creative character profile templates, so I ended up filling one out. It was actually a lot of fun, and I felt it was a productive break from the manuscript. I don't know that it would be helpful for more experienced writers, but for someone in his first attempt, it helped me figure a lot out.

  4. Renée, Why such a large cast of characters? All with names? As a reader, I enjoy a story that has maybe up to twenty or so well-defined characters. More than that might make me guess that you're working on a series.

  5. I agree with your argument; what ends on the page is the writer’s responsibility however subliminal the process. But is also true that some characterizations can pull the plot in a different direction than originally planned. Writing, like most intense experiences, is a lonely pursuit. In the vacuum of the creative moment, many writers have the uncanny feeling that characters have a mind of their own. The sensation can be unsettling, or downright frightening. So, you worked on Wade and had a clear conception of his character’s arch, and the same could be said of María’s Paqua. But every story can take a different direction if the writer commits the mortal sin of inadvertently boosting a secondary character.Take the bridge scene with Kristina, a creep and Wade. Imagine you delved into the rapist’s ethos and slipped into his mind. In the ensuing fascination, you could have given the bastard a line, then another and another. Ages later—when you returned from topping-up your coffee—Kristina and Wade would have melded into the background and the wretched attacker stolen the limelight.Of course, your writing behaviour would have been amateurish and unruly; every character in a story, no matter how insignificant its role, can be given prominence. I suppose part of the writer’s art is to rein in those natural urges to wander, and stick to well-plotted storylines and character arches. I just checked my dictionary; the word I was looking for is “professionalism,” or the lack of it.I need coffee…

  6. Paul: I think character outlines are fun to write, especially those big long questionnaires you find online. And I can see how a writer would find those useful. You see, what is in those outlines is what goes on in my head. The reason I don't use them is that once written, I never look at them again and knowing they're there makes me anxious, like someone is going to 'know' that I changed a character here and there. Yep. I'm weird.Jeanne: No, they don't all have to have names but it must feel as though they do. Does that make sense? I'm certainly not giving each a line. I just have to figure a way to show them without…well, showing them.Carlos: True, I might have gone the other way and given William Allan a huge role. But doing so didn't move the story forward. Actually, in my mind, Mr. Allan has full bio and background. In the story he only warrants a couple of pages. Thomas on the other hand was supposed to have two lines. That's all. But his character and the potential to deepen the story with him nagged at me. I suppose you could say Thomas took the story in another direction, but the way I see it is I saw the benefit of expanding his character and stopped writing, went back to the outline and bashed my head against the wall until I managed to weave his story into Kristina and Wade's story. Me. I did it. You're right, professionalism may be the difference. I could have written in circles trying to include him. I could have added five chapters that would eventually be deleted while trying to figure out what role he would play. Instead I stopped, made sure it would work, and then I wrote a couple of extra scenes and saved myself a lot of time and stress.

  7. I don't agree with this current hype about characters. Character-driven stories? What, you have a bunch of perfectly defined, realistic, memorable characters sitting around waiting for something to happen, and when it does, they react?Nay, nay and thrice nay. The story is everthing. All my characters are ordinary people, with their mixture of strengths and weaknesses. OK, no one is ordinary, everyone is unique, blah, blah, but you know what I mean. They end up getting thrown into extraordinary situations, usually unwillingly, unwittingly or even accidentally. They react.They continue to react until they get really pissed off and start taking control of their own destinies. Which most of us never do. That's why the characters are heroes, and we aren't.But this is me writing about someone taking control. The character isn't taking control, even though, when I'm writing them, the situation is real to me. In first person POV, I am the protagonist; the situation he's in is more real than my immediate surroundings. I'm living it as my character. But still, with godlike power, if I don't like the outcome, or the dialogue, or the action, I go back and change it.As Shakespeare might have said: 'All the world's a stage, so I'm rewriting the script.' As for secondary characters, and secondary situations, we have the experiences of real life to draw on. We all know hundreds of people. Take a speech mannerism here, a nervous tic there, a peculiar way of turning a head, a physical defect: shake well, serve with ice and you have a secondary character.I have crowds of characters lurking in the wings, like eager auditioners, all clamouring to be picked for the next show. Find the ones that fit the situation and voila! Realism strikes again! And the beauty of it is – you can reuse them. Regard them as actors playing roles you've assigned. If you like their (your) performance, work with them again. If they don't do so well, demote them to third spear-carrier from the left.This has immediate benefits. If you can write someone well, you can write them even better the next time. Plus you don't have to build up profiles and sketches every time.Time-saving or what?

  8. Good points, Paul. As for character driven stories, I disagree slightly. I think there are stories where the characters are more vivid than the plot. That's not to say the plot doesn't control the story, the plot IS the story, but occasionally the characters are more memorable. This is how I see a character driven story. It is not that without them there would be no story, it's that they are so well written, they outshine the layers beneath. Reusing characters? Never! 😉 Okay, perhaps I've recycled one or two with a minor makeover now and then.

  9. Great discussion. What else can be said? In my case characters bubble up from the unconscious – and then, to an extent, 'events' shape them, or if you wish 'reveal' them. I'm sure there's more to it than that…

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