writing

Creative process: Character building for my new YA series

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I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my own creative processes (because I often think I don’t have one) until someone asks me how I go about doing certain things, and then I feel like a dummy because I don’t have an answer prepared. Writers should know what they’re doing, right? So I’m told. Anyway, this has been happening more and more often, so I thought it was time that I organize my thoughts on the matter – or at least attempt to – so that next time someone asks about my “writing process,” I can be like, “Oh! I wrote about that. Here’s a link!”

So, we’ll start with character building.

My next project after TBSOL is going to be a young adult series that revolves around four high school girls who belong to a secret vigilante group. You can read a very rough draft of the first chapter – here.

So, here’s how I’ve gone about creating my four girls.

step 1: the names

Coming up with the right names is a very long process for me, because I’m picky, and also, I don’t like to name main characters after people that I know. Whenever I encounter a name that I like, I write it down. I often ask friends and strangers for character name ideas. I have baby name books. I consult baby name websites. Sometimes I pick temporary names, and sometimes the temporary names end up sticking.

For this series, I kept having to change my characters’ names because one of my best friends kept dating people who happened to have the same name as my characters, and I knew that would ruin her association of them, and in turn, ruin my association of them. So I changed them. Several times. Hopefully for good this time… *looks suspiciously at said friend* 

I’ve settled on the following names:

  1. Sasha
  2. Lara
  3. Ainsley
  4. Zoie

step 2: the personalities and interests

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Stories come to me in snippets of scenes and dialogue, so it becomes a matter of assigning the names to the different voices in my head. From the dialogue, I can usually begin to unravel the different personality types. Figuring out their individual interests becomes a matter of imagining the characters in different scenarios, and then filling in the missing details.

Most of the things I come up with in the process of creating the characters don’t make it into the book itself because plot and story eventually take over my original ideas. But I write a lot of stuff I know I’ll never use.

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The first thing I did with these characters was envision them in a room together, talking to each other in a “meeting” environment. From there I discovered my leader (Ainsley), the loudest voice in the room (Sasha), the quietest voice in the room (Zoie), and the one in the middle of all extremes (Lara).

Assigning dialogue to each character helps me get a sense for each character’s personality.

As far as interests go, I tend to envision each character alone in their rooms. Who people are when they’re alone says a lot about them. Sasha doesn’t like to be alone, so even if she’s physically by herself she will still be talking on the phone, or texting someone. Lara loves to be alone, and will always be found at the computer. Ainsley doesn’t mind being alone, but hates feeling idle, so she’ll probably be found researching something or arguing with people on the internet. Zoie spends a lot of time alone, scribbling in her journal, or updating her secret blog.

After I get a sense of who they are when they’re alone, I try to put them in scenes one-on-one, to see who they are when they’re not in a group environment. From there I get a sense of what their individual friendships look like. Sasha hanging out with Ainsley will read differently than Sasha hanging out with Lara, for example.

So after writing out a bunch of short scenes with the characters either together or alone, I managed to get a basic idea of who each of them is.

This is all very general/basic and subject to change:

  • Sasha – 17, Bisexual extrovert. Likes to be the center of attention. Loves acting and performing. Has a boyfriend. Is secretly in love with Lara.
  • Lara – 16, Lesbian introvert. Obsessed with: reading, tv show fandoms, UFOs/the paranormal. Spends a lot of time online. Currently involved in a long distance relationship with someone she’s never met in person.
  • Ainsley – 17, Does not believe in labels, but at gun point would probably say she’s pansexual. Extrovert. Is all about feminism and equal rights. She’s the leader of the group and likes to spend her free time joining activist causes. Most popular girl at school (due to strange school politics involving a chair), and hates it. Single, by choice.
  • Zoie – 16, Lesbian introvert. Goes to an all-girl’s Catholic school. She believes in God, and is an all-around good-girl. Unpopular at school, and often bullied. Shy and reserved. Spends a lot of time volunteering/helping the needy and writing. Single, and feels like she always will be. Has a crush on Ainsley.

step 3: getting into their heads

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I like to write out journal-type entries from each of the character’s perspectives. Sometimes I have them answer a particular question. Other times, I let stream of consciousness take over. This is the best way I’ve found to really get into my character’s heads and gain a sense of who they are and how they think.

Here’s an example, from Zoie’s P.O.V. –

Zoie

 

I remember thinking of life as a train speeding by. Everyone I knew was on it, and I’d missed it. I was on the platform, running after it as fast as I could, but I wasn’t fast enough.

I used to think there was a how-to guide that told everyone else how to be and how to act – a guide I didn’t have. I didn’t understand how it was possible that everyone knew what to wear, how to speak, what things were okay to think/believe/say and what weren’t.  I was always a step behind. A stray mark in the white space of a coloring book – never inside the lines.

I don’t think of life as a train anymore. I don’t think there’s a guide. Since meeting these girls, and embarking on this new life, I’ve realized that nobody knows what’s going on. Some just fake it better than others. See me as strong, for I am weak. See me as funny, for I am sad. Love me, for I hate myself. So on and so forth. 

Everyone’s scared.

Life is not a train. I see it now as a series of paths, all parallel to each other, and we’re all walking down a separate one. We can see each other across the great divide, all headed in the same direction. We can speak, walk side by side and at the same pace. We can keep each other company or leave each other behind. We can lift each other up or bring each other down. But we’re still, always, wandering down our own paths.

Alone.

step 4: love stories

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At the core of everything I write – no matter what genre – there will always be a love story. There’s nothing I enjoy more than a good love story. So after I’ve come up with my characters, the next thing I do is figure out what their love stories are going to be.

I’m still working on this, so I can’t really lay it all out definitively. I do know the main love story of the first book will be between Sasha and Lara, but this is not a romance book. The plot is not about Sasha being in love with Lara, and Lara eventually feeling the same way. This is a series about four girls who spy on people and take matters into their own hands whenever they spot something they feel is “wrong.” But how the characters feel about each other (especially in a romantic sense) is imperative to writing how they behave around each other.

step 5: secondary characters

Secondary characters, to me, are just as important as main characters.

For this series, there will be a somewhat endless supply of secondary characters and I haven’t even begun to create them all yet. Sasha and Lara go to the same school, but they don’t hang out in school. In fact, they keep their friendship a secret. They each belong to totally different social groups (Sasha is part of the popular, theater crowd, and Lara keeps more to herself). Ainsley and Zoie go to different schools. Ainsley goes to a very quirky private school, and Zoie to an all-girls Catholic school.

So, keeping that in mind, they’re each going to have different groups of people in their lives. They’re all going to have different sets of parents, and family members.

There’s going to be villains.

There’s going to be other people involved in their vigilante schemes. There’s a leader above Ainsley. There’s an entire secret society.

So, I’ve got a lot of work to do, essentially.

With secondary characters, what I usually do is pin-point the most important – the ones that will be appearing all the time – and treat them as main characters. I don’t write out journal entries from their perspective or anything, but I write out paragraphs of background, and I write out scenes between the secondary characters and the main characters to get a sense for what they sound like.

and that’s about it…

The rest comes out in the process of writing.

I’m always interested in other people’s creative processes so feel free to share your own. Hopefully this has answered the question of what I do in terms of building characters, which is not to say that it’s the right way or best way for everyone.