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!

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

Characters who behave perfectly logically and heroically in every circumstance aren't just unrealistic, they're predictable and uninteresting to read about. Do what’s right for your story and what’s right for your character in that moment, 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, 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
  • 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.