How to Create Detail Clusters

Have you ever looked back on a scene you’ve written and wondered why it feels a bit ... generic?

You’ve developed amazing characters. You’ve crafted a fascinating plot. It flows, but something is missing.

The missing ingredient might just be detail.

Let’s look at a paragraph from Barbara Delinsky’s Sweet Salt Air, first with the details stripped out, and then in its original form:

"The fog couldn’t dull the colours of the boats. Nor could the smell of the sea overpower that of the restaurant. Bobbing on her toes, she clutched her hands at her mouth to contain herself, while the ferry slowed and began to turn. She moved along the side to keep the pier in her sight."

It’s decent, right? It flows. There’s movement. It’s somewhat descriptive. Now, let’s look at the original:

"The hovering fog couldn’t dull the reds and blues of the boats. Nor could the smell of seaweed overpower that of the Chowder House grill. Bobbing on her toes, she clutched her hands at her mouth to contain herself, while with agonizing precision and a grinding of gears, the ferry slowed and began to turn. She moved along the side to keep the pier front and center in her sight."

Suddenly you’re right there, on the ferry, seeing the island of Quinnipeague come into view off the bow. You can feel that sense of anticipation and familiarity twirling around in the protagonist’s mind.

What a difference a few details make.

If you tend to see scenes in brilliant detail in your mind’s eye but struggle to get that same vision onto the page, detail clusters might just be your new best friend. These scrumptious morsels are easy and fun to create. Incorporating details into your writing becomes far less painstaking with detail clusters at your side.

Let’s meet these helpful critters, shall we?

Infusing your story with details helps move it from being a good story to a great one.  By collecting details in clusters ahead of time, you'll always have the perfect inspiration to hand.  Read more about these precious storytelling gems in this blog post! | Something Delicious

What is a detail cluster? 

A detail cluster is a collection of details, customized to suit your work-in-progress and preferred genre, along a certain theme. To give you an idea, the detail cluster for Alice, my current protagonist, includes things like cosy sweaters, a phoenix tattoo, and fluff "gifted" from her cat.

You could create detail clusters for:

  • each of the seasons: 
    1. crisp leaves in autumn 
    2. a snowfall's hush in winter 
    3. the scent of spring's cherry blossoms 
    4. the sound of a lawnmower in summer 
  • historical periods: 
    1. typical foods for nobility in 16th century France 
    2. flight maneuvers used during World War Two 
  • character development: 
    1. nervous habits 
    2. jobs and careers 
    3. distinctive physical characteristics 

This is something you can add to over time, so narrow things down to just one set of detail clusters for now. These can be specific to one story or useful to your writing process in general.

If you want to create detail clusters for your characters, for example, you might have one each for your protagonist, antagonist, and main supporting characters.

As another example, if you're writing a series with a lawyer as your protagonist, you might have detail clusters for the names of legal documents, the crimes they typically defend, and Latin terminology they sprinkle into their speech in court.

What other detail clusters could you create?

How to organize detail clusters

As with any reference material for writing, you’ll want to keep detail clusters easy to access.

To keep them handy, you could add them to a bullet journal, a story binder, Google Drive, index cards (easy to keep in a handbag, backpack, or purse), Trello, or Scrivener.

It may take some experimentation to figure out how and where to keep your detail clusters. So far I prefer keeping the clusters together as much as possible (rather than, for example, adding the detail cluster for my current protagonist to the other information I have about her). I may need to access different detail clusters at the same time, and rather than flipping from section to section, trying to find all the different ones, it’s easier to have them in one spot. That way, whether I want to use them as a writing prompt or to spice up a scene (we’ll talk below about different ways to use them) it’s easy to find whatever I need.

Even if you are keeping your detail clusters together in one spot, you may want to create some separation within that spot for ease of reference. Clusters for each of the seasons might want to share a page, for example, or clusters developed from research for a historical fiction novel.

If you decide to group clusters this way, try this method to decide how much space to allocate for each:

1. Start on a fresh page.

2. Add a heading that makes sense for all these clusters.

3. Decide whether to write them in a list format or more like a cloud. The former is more predictable space-wise, while the latter can feel a bit less restrictive.

4. If you think you’ll want to add any decorative elements, leave a bit of extra space around your list-to-be, but don’t add any decoration yet. You don’t want your cluster to be curtailed prematurely for fear of running into the edge of the world’s cutest doodled frame.

5. Beginning with one cluster, add as many details as you’d like. Be sure to leave a bit of spare room at the end for a few more details to be added over time. If you end up needing more space in the future, you can make a “Part 2” version of these clusters.

6. If you want to add any decorative elements, like a cute border, now is the time to do it.

7. Measure how much space was taken up by the first cluster, including the extra space at the end and any decorative bits. This is the amount of space to allocate for a similar type of cluster.

How to populate detail clusters

You can find the details to populate your clusters just about anywhere. The only rule is to keep the details short and comprehensible.

The “comprehensible” bit is especially important when you’re writing about something new to you: if you’re writing about a criminal lawyer in Canada, for example, don’t put R. v. Jordan in a “cases they might reference” detail cluster unless you’ll remember (or have an easy reference elsewhere) that it relates to whether an accused has been tried within a reasonable time frame.

The best place to begin is your own mind. Write down what you know. Write down what comes to mind as you’re recording what you know. Then, and only then, move on to other sources of inspiration, such as:

  • reading a book or magazine 
  • watching TV or a movie 
  • playing a video game 
  • doing research for your work-in-progress 
  • everyday observations of the world around you, especially if you engage all your senses 
  • trying something new (as extensive as a new hobby or as simple as a new recipe) 
  • character development exercises 
  • asking a friend (they don’t have to be a writer) about one of their passions 
  • browsing Pinterest 

How to use detail clusters 

Now that you have these scrumptious clusters of detail at hand, what next? You could get up to all sorts of mischief. Here are a few ideas to light that creative fire:

1. Combine details into a writing prompt.

If you're at a loss for what to write next, take a few of the details from your clusters and write them at the top of a page. This works on paper or electronically.

From there, tease out a bit of writing from those details. It doesn't have to be an entire scene (although it could be). Start by creating a moment in time.

For example, say I wrote "phoenix tattoo + muffin tin + howling wind" at the top of my page: a character detail (my protagonist), a story detail (kitchen cosiness is a central part of this story), and a seasonal detail. I could roughly spin that out into something like this:

"While the wind crashed against the windows, making clear that it, too, would like a muffin if only it had a mouth, Alice carried on arranging the tiny morsels of carroty goodness on a plate. Red-and-gold painted feathers skirted the rim of the plate. It didn't feel like that long ago that she'd first seen it in the shop window, let alone brought it home and added it to her collection. She'd needed the fire in her life; needed the reminder that she, too, could rise from the ashes and live brightly again. That same reminder was permanently etched in her shoulder in exquisite detail by countless tiny pinpricks."

As a writing prompt, this serves a few different purposes. I could use that now as the jumping off point for a scene; delve into what came up as a form of character development (how far does that phoenix collection span? has she shared the deeper meaning with anyone else?); or simply let it be and move onto writing the story itself, now that my creative spirit is feeling a little lighter and warmed up.

2. Use and expand on a detail to show a character's state of mind.

If one of the details is a family photo with pride of place on your protagonist’s bedside table, imagine the different emotional states conveyed by your protagonist:

  • throwing it across the room 
  • brushing fingertips over the faces beneath the glass 
  • turning it facedown on the bedside table or putting it in a drawer 

3. Use a detail as a prop to add variety to scenes.

This is similar to the last idea, but rather than the detail being a key part of the scene, it weaves seamlessly into the background of the scene.

Say, for example, you have a character who wears glasses most of the time. If a scene takes place on a cold winter’s day and the frames of the glasses are metal, they’ll lay a freezing stripe across the bridge of the character’s nose. The character might slip their glasses off and use them to gesture when explaining something.

This isn’t something you want to overdo, but repetition of details here and there make for a more consistent, believable world. Dive into your detail clusters and pick out a few that can be revisited throughout the story.

However you choose to use them, detail clusters open up oodles of possibilities for vivid storytelling. They’re also one of the least overwhelming ways to liven up lackluster writing.

You don’t have to create a galaxy of clusters to enjoy the benefits, either. Start with one and see how it goes!

If you have any questions or would like to share one of your fledgling clusters, leave a note in the comments below. I’d love to see what you come up with!

If you enjoyed this post, these ones might spark a few creative fires, too: The Art of Transmogrifying Character Notes and Bullet Journaling for Fiction Writers.

How to Nurture the Heart of a Story

As writers, we’re not just writing monologues about the joy of a perfect pie crust. We’re also trying to convey abstract concepts - like love and hope and despair - to our readers, so they can truly understand the heart of the story and feel its truth.

What is the heart of a story, though?

The heart of a story is the greatest foundation you’ll have in writing. It provides strength. Without it, your story will meander and struggle to find its way. Think of it like a map that can be used to find your way home whenever you feel lost.

It may be strong, but the heart of a story won’t thrive on its own. It needs you to nurture it. To nurture it, you need to know what it is; focus on what you’re trying to create; realize how to protect it; and give it room to breathe.

A grand task, to be sure, and I know you’re up for it!

The heart of your story is one of the most important things to know when writing a novel.  Let's talk about how to nurture and protect this crucial piece of the storytelling puzzle.

What is the heart of the story?

To unearth the heart of a story you’re writing, you need to take a good look at what you already know.

If you can remember, start at the very beginning: what was it that inspired you to write this story in the first place? Was it an article in the local newspaper? Was it a historical figure? Was it a quote? Was it a classic novel? What was it about this nugget of inspiration that lured you in?

Assuming your story hasn’t strayed too far from the original inspiration, this could be exactly where you find the heart of your story. I just finished reading a contemporary retelling of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, a book called Jane of Austin by Hillary Manton Lodge (who has one of the best author websites I’ve seen). From a reader’s perspective, I would say the heart of Jane of Austin is the bond between the three sisters and how they’re navigating major upheaval in their lives, just like in Sense and Sensibility.

If you can’t recall the genesis of your story or it’s wandered far afield, the heart of it may lie elsewhere. Look to your main characters, setting, plot, and theme.

What does everything in the story revolve around?

What matters the most?

Is the story essentially a love note to Paris? Does the story revolve around the main character’s love of weaving, both the actual craft and a metaphorical weaving of connections between people?

The heart of a story could be a few things, not just one, but it will be more potent the more you narrow it down. Think of an onion: the papery outer layer is okay for broth, but you’re not about to stir-fry it. The stiff-and-slimy layer that comes next can be edible, but it’s still not the best of the best. Keep peeling back layers, and you’ll get to the heart of the onion, where it’s sweetest and smoothest.

If you’re really struggling to narrow down the heart of your story to just one thing, try taking each aspect of story craft (characters, setting, theme, and so on) and figure out the heart of each aspect.

Who or what most represents the heart of your story in each of these areas?

In the Harry Potter series, for example, the heart of the characters (to my mind) is Harry himself. He’s extraordinary in his ordinariness and, when it comes right down to it, he’s just a kindhearted, athletic teenage guy with a good heart who would do just about anything for the people he cares about. The heart of the setting might be the feeling of home and coziness that pervades the most memorable settings, like Hogwarts and the Burrow. The heart of the theme could be the power of love.

Interestingly, though, when we look at it like that, we start to see how things relate and what pops out most of all. I’d say that the power of love is present in all of those things. It’s why Harry is extraordinary in his ordinariness; it’s why he can triumph over evil; it’s why he has something to fight for; it’s why those places feel like home.

Once you find the heart of your story (wherever and however you discover it) write it down somewhere you can find it easily. This could be on an index card that gets taped up above your desk; an image created in Canva or Paint as wallpaper for your computer; or a page in your bullet journal.

Focus on creation, not avoidance

In reading Danielle Laporte’s Desire Map, I was struck by the idea that, if you focus too hard on what you don’t want, you’re siphoning attention and energy from what you do desire.

Think about it this way: there are an infinite number of possibilities in the world. If you spend too much time thinking about what kind of story you don’t want to write, you’ll exhaust yourself by trying to cover an infinite number of bases, when what you should be focusing on are the specific possibilities you want to bring into being with your story, to show its heart to the world in the best possible way.

For example, if you think, “I don’t want to write a cliched love story,” you’ll busy yourself thinking of all the cliches you despise, looking up lists on Pinterest, and watching every vaguely romantic movie on Netflix to make sure you don’t create what you’re resisting … but that’s exactly where your energy is going. You may not write a cliched love story, but you’re also unlikely to write any story at all, at that rate. After all, you’ve barely made a dent in that Netflix queue!

Instead, you could be thinking, “I want to write a love story about a couple already dating when the story begins, with a shared passion for something crafty that adds to their bond and chemistry.”

Can you feel the possibilities percolating? Now you can brainstorm what that crafty passion is, how they explore it, and what triumphs and obstacles it could provide for their relationship. All your efforts will go in the right direction, because you’re focusing on the heart of the story, not every other heart in the world that doesn’t catch your fancy.

Fiercely protect the heart of the story

No matter how sure we feel of the heart of our story at the outset, we’re bound to come up against resistance, unless we isolate ourselves from the world completely (and the world, in this case, includes every book, TV show, movie, and song).

Someone will doubt the heart of the story. Someone will suggest that it’s not quite right, or that it’s not as good as it could be, or that it’s dull, or that it’s not snazzy enough.

That someone could even be you.

While there is a time for flexibility (and we’ll talk about that in a moment), your story needs you to be strong. It needs you to be wary of outside influences, trying to cast aspersions on the brightness and strength of its heart. It needs you to believe in it.

This story came to you, not to anyone else, because you are the right one to bring it to life. Honour that whenever you feel doubt, from someone else or from yourself. Your story may shift and change in some respects, but the heart … the heart stays true.

There is one case where a second look is merited, and that’s when you’re made aware that you’ve been insensitive or disrespectful (to a minority, for example). Once you’re aware, you can’t use your duty to the heart of your story as a way to minimize these implications. Instead, that’s the time to realize the heart of your story may not be as pure as you think; take a good look at it, with people more knowledgeable about the slight than yourself; and decide if it’s worth reworking or needs to be set aside.

Leave a little breathing room

Now that we’ve driven home your sworn duty to protect the heart of your story, let’s talk about the need to be okay if it changes.

I know, I know, but hear me out.

If an invisible muse is tiptoeing across your skin, making you ponder the possibilities when it comes to the heart of your story, that’s not necessarily something you should be resisting. Protecting something doesn’t mean stifling it, after all.

The reason we spoke so strongly about the need to protect the heart of your story is because sudden, 180-degree changes are rarely for the best. They often come about from a feeling of insecurity or, dare I say, boredom. If there are changes to be made, you need to carry them out from a place of strength, not uncertainty.

The key is to make sure, as much as you can, that the change is happening organically and isn’t being forced. One of the best ways to do this is with some bounded experimentation.

You need to experiment with a sense of freedom and play, not angst or pressure. To do this, don’t dump all the old stuff you have, no matter how enticing the new. This way, if you realize this is just a fling, not a long-term love affair, you can pick up where you left off.

Give yourself a span of time to audition these new ideas and see if this is really where the heart of the story lies now. Write down (just like we did earlier) what you imagine this heart to look like, and then do some brainstorming. Write a few scenes. Have a chat with a character or two.

There are three likely outcomes to this trial-by-brainstorm:

Outcome #1 - It feels right and is the best direction for the story to move in. If this is the case, archive the bits of your writing materials that are no longer relevant (something we talk about in Decluttering for Writers), and start the next phase of the adventure with your story.

Outcome #2 - Something isn’t clicking. Nothing is clicking, in fact, not the way it did before. Spending time with these newfangled notions has helped you realize that the heart of your story was already exactly where it needed to be. Keep any notes from this experimentation that might be helpful (for this story or a different project) and let the rest go.

Outcome #3 - This isn’t working, but going back to the way things were doesn’t feel like the right path, either. If you no longer feel a connection to the heart of a story, it may be time to let it go. You don’t need to get rid of everything (in fact, I’d advise holding onto it, at least for now, in a spot where it won’t be on your mind all the time) but you need to set the story free. Give it a puff of air in your mind’s eye to send it on its way, like a dandelion gone to seed, its wishes swirling in the wind, so it can find its way to a creative soul who’s waiting to meet a story just like it… or maybe, just maybe, it will find its way back to you in the future.

The more deeply rooted the heart of your story, the more scrumptious it will be, so I hope you feel more confident in your ability to connect with it now! If things still feel a bit misty, narrow your focus to the first step: discovering the heart of your story. You can even try looking at some of your favourite books and where their heartbeat emanates from. It doesn’t have to be the same as what the author had in mind; this is just to get your wheels turning. Sometimes it’s less pressure when it’s not your own story, so it helps to break the ice.

Don’t feel the need to perfect any of this, either. While major changes to the heart of a story should make you hesitate, acknowledging that it’s not actually what you thought it was in the first place is a different matter altogether. No harm done in coming to a better and better understanding over time!

In the story I’m working on right now, the heart of it is the healing power of food, both physically and mentally, though I sometimes feel it might actually be the main character, a gifted chef who touches lives through sharing her talent. Whenever I’m unsure if something fits the story or what to write next, I can return to the heart of the story and use that as my first line of inquiry: does this ring true or does it stray too far from the heart?  While it's not the answer to everything, having something I can come back to, somewhere to ground myself, makes a big difference in navigating the tangled web of storytelling.

How about you, creative soul? What’s the heart of your story?

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy Seven Ways to Court Your Muse.

How to Unlock the Potential of Transportation in Fiction

“Money may not buy happiness, but I'd rather cry in a Jaguar than on a bus.”

Fran├žoise Sagan

It’s funny to think that something as pedestrian as a character’s preferred mode of transportation could offer any inspiration or insight. Does it really matter if they ride their bike everywhere or drive a gigantic pick-up truck or refuse to go anywhere they can’t walk to?

It may seem insignificant, but the kind of transportation your character uses affects their independence (how much autonomy do they have to do what they need or want to do, when they need or want to do it?), and if all of your characters move about in the same way all the time, it’ll start feeling samey. That’s not even taking into account places in the world and eras in history when things like gender, race, and class dictate the modes of transportation used.

Knowing the modes of transportation used by your characters (the main ones, at the very least) helps bring order to the story world while also providing ample opportunity for writerly mischief, and goodness knows that's where half the fun is. ^_~

Explore these writing prompts to find out how different forms of transportation mesh with character development.  How your character gets from place to place has the potential to unlock some dynamic story possibilities.

What form of transportation do they use most often?

For a contemporary story, your character could use a:

  • bus
  • bike
  • car
  • mobility aid
  • train
  • subway
  • motorbike
  • van
  • skateboard
  • unicycle
  • scooter
  • horse (hey, it works on Heartland ! ^_~)
  • motorhome

For a historical and/or fantasy story, your character might use a:

  • horse
  • camel
  • covered wagon
  • caravan
  • mythical creature (e.g. dragon or griffin)
  • magic carpet
  • pirate ship
  • broomstick
  • turtle
  • horse-drawn carriage
  • vintage automobile

Science fiction offers even more possibilities, like the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars or the transport tubes in Babylon 5.

For all modes of transportation …

How often does your character use this form of transportation? Is it an everyday kind of thing or only when they can’t get somewhere by walking (which could be often or rarely, depending where they live and how physically capable they are)?

If this mode of transportation were unexpectedly out of commission, how would your character cope? What would they use instead?  Would it spoil any plans? Is it a blessing in disguise?

What does your character use this form of transportation for? Is it purely for utilitarian purposes or do they use it for fun, too? How about road trips? Pizza deliveries? Taking a friend to chemo? Getting some exercise? Sneaking out after curfew?

How does this mode of transportation affect the way others treat your character? Someone with a car might be the go-to person in their circle of friends for rides. Someone young or seemingly able-bodied with a mobility aid might unjustly attract dirty looks from people who think they don’t actually need one.

For leased or owned modes of transportation ...

Note: Some of these questions apply to both sentient and non-sentient modes of transportation. Others are decidedly one-sided.

Where did they get it from? New at a dealership? Secondhand through an online ad? From a friend of a friend? As a hand-me-down? Abandoned at the side of the road?

Did the receipt of this mode of transportation mean something significant at the time? For example, was it their first car? Was it their first big purchase? Was it the first contract they signed? Was it their first joint asset with a partner? Was it a make they’d always dreamed of getting?

When it comes to transportation, is your character more likely to constantly upgrade to the newest model, stick with the old so long as it works (and maybe even beyond), or somewhere in between?

Does this form of transportation belong solely to your character or do they share it with anyone? If so, who? Is it a community car share? Do they share it with their partner/parents/siblings/teenage kids? Are they the sole owner but often find themselves transporting other people, too?

What does this form of transportation look like? Is it covered in decals? Does it have a basket on the front to hold fresh-cut flowers? Are there panniers to carry groceries? Is it grimy or clean? Is it free of scratches or does it look like it’s been attacked by porcupines?

How would people be most likely to describe it? Intimidating? Adorable? Simple? Classy? Powerful?

How well maintained is it? How often does it break down? Does your character stay on top of maintenance or do they forget until something goes wrong? Is it an older model with parts that are getting more and more difficult to replace? Does your character do (any) repairs themselves?

How far can your character go with this mode of transportation? How much of the world does it open up for them?

Are there any special memories associated with this form of transportation? On the show Heartland, for example, Ty’s truck holds a lot of memories for both him and Amy. In an earlier season, they dance in the back of the truck when it breaks down on the way to her prom; in a much later season, they dance in the back of it again, but those who have seen the episode will know they're not alone this time.

For sentient modes of transportation ...

What sort of relationship does your character have with this being (or beings)? Is it more like a symbiotic partnership, a bond of love and/or friendship, a master-and-servant dynamic, or something strictly utilitarian? How far would one go for the other, and vice versa?

How does this being communicate with your character? Is it capable of speech?

Does your character take care of the being, perhaps by providing food and board? Does someone else do it for them? Is the being capable of providing for themselves?

How much autonomy does this being have? Do they have any say in where and when they go? Are there times when this being disappears on their own adventures or with other characters, or are they always available to this character?

There are so many questions and dynamics you can explore with fiction, even with something so seemingly mundane as your character’s primary mode of transportation. This is just a taste of how you can use the ordinary to liven up your story. ^_^ If you keep track of characters in your bullet journal, this is another great thing to add to a character spread.

Let me know in the comments how your character gets from place to place! What possibilities does transportation open up for your story?

The Art of Transmogrifying Character Notes

It’s no secret that character development is one of my all-time favourite parts of writing a novel. I’m also all too aware of the creative paralysis that takes over when you look at all your notes and think, “What the heck do I do with this? Does this character even make sense?”

The process can be a little slippery, it’s true, but you can make sense of all those notes with a bit of time and focussed thinking. Let’s find out how to weave all the wayward pieces into a cohesive whole!

How do you transform a schmozzle of notes into a fully realized character?  Step 1: Gather ALL your notes.  Step 2: Highlight any connections between characters.  Read on for Steps 3 and beyond! | Something Delicious

I prefer doing a hefty amount of character development before getting into the rough draft. I struggle to make any headway otherwise. If you prefer to do this sort of thing after your rough draft is finished, this process can work for you, too! All the steps remain the same; you’ll just have the benefit of having worked through some things in your rough draft already.

Whenever you do this, you’ll want to start by gathering all your character notes, and I do mean all: you can’t weave together a cohesive whole if you’re missing pieces from the get-go.

Before you move on, go through all the notes and highlight anything that has to do with more than one character, e.g. thoughts about their relationship, a common workplace, or a story event that impacts them both. Being able to look through your notes and see these interconnected pieces of information at a glance will help you untangle things.

A few bits of advice I’ll offer for these next steps:

  • Start with the most important characters and carry on to the supporting characters afterwards. If you make any significant changes or shifts, it’s better to make them with your major characters first and see how that trickles down to your supporting characters than the other way around. 
  • Don’t solely think the answers through in your head, only writing them down when you’re absolutely sure of them. I’ve been guilty of this and have lost some of my best ideas and strongest connections because I analysed them to death inside my head, sometimes for hours or even days. By the time I tried to write them down, I’d forgotten the best bits or, worse yet, gone around in so many circles that I was too dizzy to recall the brightest, earliest sparks. 
  • Sort these answers through on scrap paper rather than something more permanent. That will come later, but using scrap paper will free you up to think things through and make a mess, crossing things out and scribbling new ideas in. This might seem like it’ll make things more complicated, but this is one of those “it gets worse before it gets better” kind of things. 
  • Clean up as you go. Just like baking all those cookies over the holidays, life will be a lot easier if you cross out and recycle things (or delete and trash them, if you’ve gone the electronic route) as you’re going along rather than leaving it until the end. This is about smoothing, simplifying, and refining, and part of that is chipping away what doesn’t work or is no longer necessary. 

As always, feel free to tweak those tips or follow them verbatim (at least to begin with), whatever feels right to you. Now, pick up the notes for your first character and let’s get weaving!

What sticks out?

When you’re reading through your notes, is there anything that catches your eye and doesn’t quite seem to fit with everything else you’ve discovered about your character? It might be obnoxiously obvious or it might be something that you come back to a few times, trying to make excuses for it but never quite managing to pull it off.

The first thing to consider (because this won’t necessitate any changes, if it’s true!) is whether this isn’t a mistake, but rather just them being human. We all have a contradiction or two in the way we live our lives. No one makes perfect sense. Unless it’s just way too jarring, consider the possibility that you don’t need to change your character at all, and that this adds to their wholeness rather than taking away from it.

Possibility number two is that you just need to make a subtle tweak for it to work. For example, if your character regularly bakes up a storm but they have a minimum wage job, maybe they’ve made a point of budgeting for ingredients and keep one of their more costly guilty pleasures to a minimum.

If you can’t leave it be and you can’t tweak it, this could be a case of finding a way to smooth out the rough edges, perhaps by forging a connection to the character’s past or one of their influential relationships. For example, if your character flits between as many hobbies as Kirk had jobs on Gilmore Girls (62!), it wouldn’t ring true if they were stellar at all of them. Being incredibly skilled in a few among the many, however, could be the result of innate talent, a holdover from a childhood obsession, or a boomerang effect (that one hobby that keeps resurfacing over and over).

If nothing feels right about this characteristic or if it’s redundant, you may just need to let it go. We do a lot of brainstorming and experimentation when creating a character, so it’s not surprising that some things just don’t mesh. If you’re reluctant to discard it for good, keep it for another character, in this story or a different one.

How does this character connect to and deepen the story?

Part of creating a cohesive whole for your character is understanding their connection to the story. What’s the theme (or themes) of your story? Which aspects of your character reflect or enhance the theme? What do the events of the story and the unfurling of this theme bring out in your character?

Knowing at least a little about these resonant moments ahead of time is a big help when it comes to developing a well-rounded character and writing a novel!

One classic example is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and her exploration of first impressions (to the point of it being the original title!). Looking at Elizabeth Bennet alone, we see not only how inaccurate her first impressions are but how damaging those mistaken impressions can be, leading her to trust someone who doesn’t deserve it and badmouth someone who deserves better. When she finally learns of Wickham’s deceit, realizes what she’s done and how poorly her first impressions served her (“How despicably have I acted!”), it’s a big step towards her developing maturity: “Till this moment, I never knew myself.”

Do you have a Mary Sue or Gary Stu on your hands?

We can sometimes be a little too angelic when it comes to creating characters, especially the protagonists. When you’re reading through your notes, watch carefully for signs that the character is always in the right, that you’ve created saintly justifications for everything they do, or that you hesitated or held back somewhere.

If your character feels too good to be true, don’t panic! You don’t need to start chucking flaws at their head. Look back at what you already know and consider:

  • Where misunderstandings could occur 
  • Who challenges them 
  • Which traits or preferences could come into conflict 
  • What they think they know but don’t truly understand 

To give you an example, I was talking to a friend of mine about Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, particularly Harry’s less-than-noble demeanour and angry outbursts. I remember, at the time it came out, a lot of people were unhappy with that. They felt like it wasn’t the same person they’d come to know and love. They felt like he was whining and being a stereotypical angsty teenager.

My friend and I, on the other hand, were on the same page. Harry had borne so much tragedy and responsibility on his shoulders up to that point, it felt inevitable that he would, at some point, break. If he hadn’t, then yes, it would have reaffirmed his status as the noble, long-suffering hero, but it would have taken a step away from the fact that he was a relatable young man, struggling to cope with yet another horrific loss on top of everything else he’d already faced.

Do what’s right for your story but, first and foremost, do what’s right for your character, even if it feels uncomfortable at times. Your story will thrive as a result.

Distinguish between “crucial” and “nice to know” information

One of the most helpful distinctions you can make when looking at a pile of notes is between what’s crucial information and what’s simply “nice to know.”

Crucial information depicts your character’s essence: who they are and how they interact with the world. This information informs their presence in the story, how their relationships form and evolve, what kind of story you’re telling, and so on. Put simply, you don’t have a story without this information.

The nice-to-know information, on the other hand, won’t make or break your story on most levels. The show will go on, whether or not we know about your character’s fascination with cracks in the sidewalk (unless you’re Steven Moffat, in which case all bets are off).

That doesn’t mean you should toss the nice-to-know tidbits. Far from it. The nice-to-know information is one of the most bountiful treasure chests you can plunder when you’re struggling to add colour to a scene. If your character loves to sew, for example, they could be cleaning gunk from their sewing machine, have bits of thread on their clothes, or rolling their shoulders to relieve an ache in their upper back, all while the main events of the scene are carrying on.

The more consistent you are with these details, the more cohesive your character feels to the reader.

Don’t tamp down your inquisitive nature!

Questions may very well pop into your mind as you read through the notes on your character. Ignore these at your peril, as you’re likely to forget them if they’re not written down straightaway. Write the questions down, along with any initial thoughts that occur to you. If you’re big on planning things out ahead of time, you may want to chase down the answers to these questions now. If you prefer to figure these things out as you, leave them be and refer back to them once in awhile as you write, unless it feels like something that could lead to cataclysmic insights.

Rinse and repeat for any other characters

You can use the same process we just explored, from start to finish, for the other main characters and supporting characters. Once you’ve pared things down, look at the whole cast with these questions in mind:

Question #1

Do you understand the connections between these characters?

For example, you may know that one of the supporting characters is your protagonist’s younger brother, but how much do you know about their sibling dynamic? How much of this dynamic has been shaped by events in adulthood as opposed to carrying on from when they were kids? Would they consider themselves to be friends?

Question #2

Are there any minor or major connections between these characters you’ve missed or want to build on?

For example, if you have two characters who despise each other but both feel a bond with animals, they could be thrown together in a volunteer situation at an animal shelter.

Question #3

Have you discovered anything with one character that contradicts what’s come up with another? This could be something to smooth out or it could be something to build on (as in the example below).

Say you’re writing a story about how you need to be your best possible self before you can have a healthy relationship with anyone else, and this is the journey your main character undertakes. Now, imagine there’s another character - her best friend, say - who’s been in rough shape for a long time, never able to get her act together … and then she meets someone. Someone who’s that little bit steadier than she is, who seems to be bringing about positive change in her life.

You could make a point by having these characters break up and seeing her fall apart, then piece herself back together once she’s single. That fits pretty well with the story you’re trying to tell, and it would be a good cautionary tale for your main character.

But what if that doesn’t feel right? What if every way you try to break them up feels contrived? What if you allow them to stay together, let this subplot unfold the way it’s trying so hard to, and explore the possibilities it brings up instead? Things like “maybe it’s less about the source of the inspiration and what we do with it instead” and “how do we decipher who’s a positive influence on our lives and who brings us down.”

Same theme, new nuances.

Sometimes the conflicts between characters are bent out of shape and meant to be fixed with your authorly prowess, but sometimes they’re a fresh, crisp breeze coming through an open door, with the Universe and its rich creative possibilities beckoning from the other side.

Keep going!

Not going to lie, this process can be exhausting. I tend to spread it over a few days. You’ll know when it’s time to stop each day, because you’ll start going over the same information, over and over, looking for patterns that are stubbornly staying just out of sight. Don’t overdo it! Stop when you need to stop.

The flipside of that, though, is not to stop the entirety of the process too soon (unless it’s just not jibing with you, which is a different matter - you need to do what works for you). Don’t stop until you’ve gone through all the notes. If you need to leave something unanswered, that’s fine, but make a choice to do that; don’t do it just because it feels easier.

Feeling stuck? Call in your writing buddies! You could even share the steps and have a writing date, encouraging and brainstorming with each other until you’ve reached the end, no scrap of paper left unturned. You could also call on your partner, a friend, or reach out in the comments below. Let’s help each other to the finish line! \^-^/

Remember to keep crossing things out as they’re no longer useful or become redundant. If you rewrite something on a different piece of paper or document to clarify it or incorporate new information, cross out/delete the old version.

When you’ve finished, you should have:

  • no duplicate information, unless it applies to more than one character 
  • no glaring gaps or inconsistencies that are better resolved before you start writing the story 
  • a “Things to Investigate” list for any questions or dilemmas that haven’t been resolved and don’t need to be just yet 

Refine and record

Now for one of the best parts, especially if you’re an organization enthusiast like me. You’ll need a system that’s ready to hold this information, whether it’s a story bible, a bullet journal (my own preference), Scrivener, or something else entirely. Whatever it is, the main thing is that it’s (1) in one defined spot and (2) categorized, first by character and then by the type of information.

With your information receptacle at the ready, take things one character at a time. Start transcribing what you’ve learned over to this more permanent space. Do this in a way that suits your system, but for me, this looks like starting with the crucial information, such as their:

  • name 
  • gender and approximate age 
  • background 
  • evolution 
  • priorities 
  • motivation 
  • relationships 
  • appearance 
  • speech patterns 

And anything else that’s come up and is vital to the telling of the story. One of my main characters is passionate about cooking, for example, and it’s a big part of her journey, so I might add a section to describe the kind of food she cooks, how the kitchen looks when she’s done with it, how she learned to cook in the first place, and what it means to her.

Next, add the appropriate tidbits to the “Nice to Know” and “Things to Investigate” lists. Remember, “Nice to Know” is something like the fact that your character is miserable without a cup of French press coffee in the morning, a finer detail that doesn’t have to make its way into your story but makes it more colourful when it does. “Things to Investigate” is something like “the main character’s younger sister resents their promotion at work, but why,” an open loop that doesn’t dramatically change the course of the story but needs to be woven in regardless, once you know the answer.

Keep transcribing and deleting things from your scrappy notes (physical or electronic), one character at a time, until there are no notes left to transmogrify. Leave a little bit of extra room for new discoveries made while writing or revising your novel.

Now, all that’s left is to read back over what you’ve written. If you notice any errors or inconsistencies, those are easily fixed on a computer and nearly as easily fixed on paper, either with white-out or a quick footnote. What I hope you’re able to do for the most part, though, is sit back and enjoy. Imagine you’re a private detective and these are files on your desk. Read them through and get a sense of who they’ve become, individually and as a community. How cool does it feel to have unearthed these vibrant personalities?

Like most things in writing, the art of transmogrifying character notes can be studied and honed but never perfected, so revel in what you’ve accomplished: these characters will be your constant companions on the road ahead, and you’re that much closer to being able to convey the heart of their story.