Dr. Johnson called remarriage “the triumph of hope over experience.” The same might be said of writing a second novel before selling the first. Yet here I stand at the altar again, veiled, clutching a bouquet, arrayed in the sleek second-wedding ivory suit, tuning out the tasteless wagering among the guests, sizing up the bridegroom. Wish us luck.
The project I’m working on now features a large cast of characters gathered in the A&P one early evening, two Tuesdays before Thanksgiving. At present, I will not say what they are doing there, but suffice to say, not one is having a pleasant shopping experience.
This second novel comes from a less dreamy, more artistically ambitious place in my imagination. I felt when writing my first novel that the characters existed in the universe somewhere, and my role was to get well enough acquainted with them that they would trust me and tell me their story. They did, but it took a long time.
The characters in the current story have suggested their collective existence and experiences to me, but require much more effort to sculpt as individuals. I wanted each to have a separate soul, as evidenced through her language, her longings, and her choices.
To that end, and recalling the detailed character studies my acting teacher used to require us to write before speaking a word onstage, I spent time last year crafting a character template customized to the world in which these characters live and the moment in which I’m observing them. Answering the 100+ questions about each character before trying to sketch her arc has been extraordinarily helpful. Some questions, I answer in a few words. Others become prompts that generate pages and pages of backstory and insight. I handwrite my initial answers, then elaborate when transcribing them onto the computer.
I’ve completed two of the twelve stories I plan to include, and have been deeply satisfied with the way the template-fueled prewriting has brought each character to life. Only a portion of the information the template draws out has made it into later drafts of these stories, but the intimate knowledge of each character’s hidden self and public presentation suffuses every moment.
I’ve found this technique so useful that I thought I would share it with a wider audience. I don’t imagine anyone else could use this specific template (unless your story also takes place in a supermarket), but it might help you write your own.
Obviously, I’m asking the questions I want my characters to answer. You might not care whether your characters can cook, but you might find it advantageous to learn whom they secretly resent, or where they wish they were. What would you like to know about your characters? You won’t know if you don’t ask. Fictional people can be as coy as real ones.
Name, age, occupation, ethnicity, marital status, composition of her household?
Symptoms. Chronic conditions. Pain. Allergy. Aches. Places she hurts, if any. Sexuality? Sleep problems? What does she do while up in the night?
What is she wearing? What is she carrying? Weight? Relationship to food, her body, exercise? Height, coloring? Clothing choice today? Other times? In what does she feel most herself? What is her symbolic color?
At this moment
Why is she in the A&P? What is she buying? What will she do with it?
Where is she coming from?
What was wrong before she got to the A&P?
What word, object, sound, or sight in the A&P set her off emotionally?
How is she paying? Does she have enough money? Where does her money come from?
Where is she going after the store? Who expects her there?
What is the connection between this person and the aisle she’s in when she breaks down?
If she has kids, are they with her? If not physically, mentally? What are her kids doing?
How is she handling the return of cold and darkness this autumn?
Food and Home
What do they generally eat in her house? Who shops, cooks, cleans up? Sloppy or neat? Help with housecleaning? Can she cook? Does she like to?
Money & Career
What is her job? What is her career? How did she get into it? Is it where she expected to be, or something quite different? Where does her money come from?
Raised with religion? Still involved in it?
What is her relationship with death?
Is she into mindfulness? Gratitude?
Relationship to the divine? Spirituality? Is she praying? Meditating?
Art & Entertainment & Intellectual life
Reading: romance, genre fiction, serious fiction? Nonfiction? Magazines?
Where/how/in what was she educated? What parts of her education are incomplete?
Entertainment: Reading? Reality TV? Movies? Sports? What kind of books/movies does she like?
Hobbies? Crafty? Knitting?
Relationships & Social life
Relationship to mother & father, living or dead, real or substitute? Relationships with siblings?
Friendships? What are her relationships with other women?
Judgmental or accepting?
Joiner? Clubs? Church, etc.?
Who* does she love? Married/partnered? How does she feel about her significant other, or lack of one?
Attitude toward love: Romantic? Cynical? Practical? Complex?
Does she have kids? How old? What are they like?
Who or what is she worried about?
Who does she hate? Who does she resent?
Who does she wish she could trade places with? Who/what does she aspire to be? Who does she envy?
Who is she in conflict with?
What is her use of social media?
What is she doing about Thanksgiving next week? How does she feel about it?
Inner Life, Desires, Dreams
What motivates her?
What is her secret sin?
What is her secret pleasure?
Are her fantasies those of escape or rescue?
Who or what is she grieving?
Where does she wish she were right now?
What does she aspire to be? What kind of life does she envy?
Does she believe in suppressing feelings or feeling them?
What are her inner conflicts?
Minor things that drive her crazy?
What are the quirks in her neurology?
What is her style, sentence structure, favored words, images, sayings, clichés? Accent? How do her feelings shape her language?
What are the characteristics of her voice?
What will be the tone of her story?
What is the arc of her story, both within the chapter and within the book?
In what ways are her work/public/cerebral self crashing into her home/private/emotional self? Or is that not how she would view it?
*Yeah, yeah. Whom. I know. This is from my notebook, not my master’s thesis.