poetry and prose about place

writing a novel – getting to know your characters

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The Whisper Wind Writers’ Retreat – the setting for my novel


Working on the drafts of a novel is like combing hair.  You start at the top/beginning and comb through the words and sentences, paragraphs and chapters, over and over.  Eventually the tangles comb out and the hair becomes smooth and shiny.


I find the best way to do the ‘combing’ is to work at specific components of the story.  Developing symbols within the story is one.  Developing characters in the story is another.


I have a lot of characters in my books.  In ‘Open to the Skies’ there are 44 characters, major, minor and dead.  This is probably too many, but it is a book about a community.

So far, in ‘Crossing at a Walk’, I have 33 characters.  These include Sadie and Tom, members of the community, and the six ‘retreaters’ (the writers enjoying a weekend at the Writers’ Retreat).


A difficulty with writing a sequel, I feel responsible for all these characters.  Leaving one of them out of book #2 seems wrong to me.  But by book # 25 (!) I’ll have a whole planet to contend with. So I have to make choices.




Each of my characters has a character sketch, a background story and a story arc.  As I’ve said before, I try to include three ‘bumps’ in each story line.

One of the ‘combings’ I do is to look at each character as he or she appears in the book.  I want to make sure the character is consistent with respect to appearance, back story, way of speaking, relationships, and so on.


1.  Character sketch and background

As an example, let me introduce you to Ruby Milton.  She is the fourth character from the left in the sketches above. She is a minor character, a constant companion to one of the major characters.   Ruby is 64 and married (she was a Brunelle before she was married).  She is a retired librarian and now runs a U-Pick with her husband Lars.  Ruby, as a result of her name, loves all things red.  She wears red and she bids on a lamp at an auction because it has a red glass finial.  A quilter, she works a red patch into every quilt she makes.  She was also one of the characters who opposed the sale and relocation of the Landing Church in ‘Open to the Skies’.  Ruby snubs Sadie at every opportunity.



Ruby would love my lamp with the red finial – it once belonged to my mother-in-law Mary


It’s hard to have to keep checking on a character sketch as I write, so I prepare a chart of my characters.  I keep the chart file open so I can check on it as often as I want.


Name Occupation Characteristics Age  Vocabulary
 Ruby Milton Librarian; runs a U-Pick Wears red; thin; a quilter; maiden name Brunelle; lived in community all her life 62 Cemetery; uses lots of contractions
 Lars Milton Retired Teacher; runs a U-Pick Tall; Full head of snowy hair 65 Graveyard
 Marjory Alworth Shop owner Nicknamed Margie; Ruby Milton’s daughter 41
 Betsy Alworth Waitress Ruby Milton’s grand-daughter 24


2. Story arc

Ruby occurs three times in ‘Crossing at a Walk’.  She occurs because she is a friend to Pat, a major character; she runs a local U-Pick and food from the U-Pick is used at the Retreat; she represents the community’s continued interest in its landmarks.  She wants to continue to use the Landing Church for her quilting group and she participates in celebrations of the history of the covered bridge.  Ruby also represents the part of the community that Sadie hasn’t quite won over in her efforts to fit in.


As I read my draft so far, I realise Ruby needs to change in some small way during the book.  So, in keeping with her importance as a representative of community, I add some elements to Ruby’s story.  At the auction, she won’t even acknowledge Sadie.  But during the book, Sadie allows Ruby’s quilters to use the church and treats Ruby as knowledgeable about community history. By the end of the book, Ruby greets Sadie as a friend and contributes a story about her memories of the covered bridge.



inside a covered bridge


I keep a table of story arcs for each of my characters, to help me build the story, be consistent and make sure that I find the story for each character.


Name First occurrence Second occurrence Third occurrence Story
 Ruby Milton Ignores Sadie at auction (page 35) Asks to use hall for quilting group (page 146) Greets Sadie as a friend at a community gathering; tells a story about bridge (page 232) Pat’s friend; represents community;  changes her attitude about Sadie


Ruby is a relatively minor character in the book.  However, I treat her with the same respect I give my major characters.  And she gives back to me.  She suggests turnings for the story.  And she helps make the community I have created for these characters more realistic.



Ruby puts a bit of red in every quilt she makes



Copyright  2015  Jane Tims 

Written by jane tims

April 3, 2015 at 7:35 am

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