Deb Erika believes rewriting builds character (and characters).

Little Gale Gumbo, by Erika MarksMy characters start small. Like bacteria small. But they really can’t help it. My novels tend to start the same way.

Usually I’ll find the inspiration for a story in a single relationship that intrigues me. Maybe it’s two brothers who have spent their whole lives trying to one up the other. Maybe it’s a pair of recent divorcees who discover love at a mutual friend’s wedding. Maybe it’s a father who hasn’t seen his daughter in thirty years and arrives on her doorstep with the police on his trail.

See what I mean? Relationships. No, not even relationships. More like moments. But the seed of the overriding conflict is there and I know it will eventually grow and flower. But just as my plots tend to grow and flower through subsequent drafts, so do my characters. If I have ever started a novel with a fixed character in my mind, I can guarantee you that character changes—dramatically.

So what does it mean to me to build a character? Am I talking about that character’s physical look, her emotional core, her history? I’m really talking about all of it. As we know, it’s a package.

Now that said, I can’t tell you how many times I used to put the cart before the horse. In other words, how many times I would build the body before I’d built the soul. I would have a look in mind for my character. I would get attached to that look.

Big mistake.

Now I know a lot of writers don’t like to be too specific with their descriptions of their characters (though I know some do) just as some readers like the look of their character to be spelled out to the smallest detail (I’m looking at you, attached earlobes!) and some readers prefer to draw their own picture of a character. But in my experience, I can’t know how my character will look until I know how they feel. Does that make sense?

Since I’m married to a biologist, an anatomical analogy comes to mind: You start have to start with the bones. You have a skeleton which is a rough idea of your character’s wants and needs, fears and loves. Then you fill those cavities with organs and you figure out what sort of heart she has, what sort of brain. Is she frenetic or sloth-like? Does she play the piano, in which case she probably has long fingers—or maybe she plays the piano but she has short fingers which emphasizes her determination to get what she wants no matter any physical limitations. You see where I’m going with this…

Then, only after you’ve worked all this out, can you finally, truly put skin on your character. It’s essentially working from the inside out. No guts, no glory.

For me, the building of that person, that character takes many, many drafts. Sometimes I won’t even attach any bodily characteristics to a character for several scenes, because too often nothing clicks. I may love the idea of a man with frothy black hair, but so what? Maybe my character doesn’t have any business having frothy black hair? And assigning him frothy black hair before I’ve assigned him a soul or a purpose would be limiting. Why not let him reveal himself to me—instead of putting him in a frothy-haired box from page one.

Oh, and there’s one last thing: When you’re done and that character is a walking, talking, feeling hot mess of a human being (my favorite kind!), then after all that—if you’re me anyway—you decide that his or her name is all wrong. Oh, go ahead. Change it. I’ve changed character names many, many times over the course of a novel’s many drafts. Why? Because the character has changed and the name no longer suits them. (Clearly, this is not how it works when naming babies. We don’t get to wait until their personalities are clear and then decide ten years later, “Well, obviously she’s a Mildred!”)

Has anyone else ever done this? (Rename their character, not their baby.)

Anyone else think I’m verging on hot mess myself for suggesting this whole cart before the horse when it comes to building characters thing?

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15 thoughts on “Deb Erika believes rewriting builds character (and characters).

  1. No, you’re not that much of a hot mess. Having just finished reading through my 1st draft, I have a notebook filled with character issues: building, missing pieces, minor alterations, and complete overhauls. I even have a few characters I LOVE who just don’t belong, and I think they are going to be nixed completely.

    I also have a list of name adjustments. My male love interest’s name has to be changed, and I am very upset about this. He is totally his name, but I’ve read two books recently who use the same name for similar characters. Boo. I’m wavering on a few other characters as well.

    I have several more drafts to go, so I suppose I have plenty of time to flesh out the names. But no, you are not alone.

    • Ahh, thank you, Kerry Ann! Isn’t it amazing how you reread that first draft and you see all those holes–there’s such a gap between what you see in your head for your character and how it gets put on the page. Even now as I near the final draft of my next book, I am STILL struggling to get one character where I want her–and like so many things in our stories, an alteration here requires some nips and tucks in others spots and soon the head spins.

      But I’m impressed that you have the foresight to see already which characters don’t work in your WIP–it’s so hard when you’ve shaped a character you love but have to step back and say, You know what? They don’t work here. Talk about killing your darlings, right?

  2. Morning, friends. Yes, I have renamed characters. First name, last name. I changed the last name of the family in my novel to accommodate the title I wanted and with the idea of a series – for which the new name gave me more leeway for titles.

    • Morning, Kim!

      Yes! That was me too–in reverse! My main characters (brothers) had a last name that was essentially built to suit a plotline and a title, and when the plotline (and title) changed, I looked at it and thought, What the–? The name can change now! And so it did. In fact this recent book may be a record for me–I can safely say with the exception of one character, everyone’s names (first and last) changed over the course of the drafts.

  3. So interesting to read about your process, Erika, especially after reading LITTLE GALE GUMBO and being in awe of your so richly drawn (and yes, flawed) characters. I defy anyone to read your book and not be amazed a your sisters and how beautifully written they are!
    I myself almost never give my characters physical descriptions, or at least not many, but yes, I’ve had to change names. But not because they didn’t fit – one book had two Andys and another had the love interest sharing my father’s name and I felt weird about that and didn’t want anyone to think I had issues. I mean, I do have issues, but not THOSE issues. 😉

    • Aw, thank you, my dear…

      I understand about the names that are too close to home. It’s tough, isn’t it? And then of course, if it’s a somewhat unusual name and you know someone with that name you worry they will think you’re basing the character on them!

  4. Not a hot mess! I agree about building the soul, then the body. Truth is, I can’t really see my characters until I know what their heartaches and flaws are. Then they’ll start to materialize. I know I’m ready to start writing when I’m showering or cooking or driving, and I hear random bits of dialogue between the characters can see them interacting. When do you know you’re ready to start writing?

    But, I don’t REALLY know the characters until after the first draft. And I do need readers because I sometimes delude myself I know my characters oh-so-well when in reality they’re coming through too soft-focussed on the page. This means that I’ve missed something at their core.

    I always wonder about the novelists who start with plot and design their characters to go with the plot. To me, that’s the ultimate cart before the horse!

    • Hi Lisa! That really is the tough part; we can see them so clearly and we impart things in our heads as we reread our work that may not be there yet. And they evolve too, don’t they? I’m always struck at how my characters evolve over the course of many drafts–personality-wise, especially. Because so often the other characters will help to shape them–and vice-versa!

  5. (Oh, my gosh! Sorry I missed commenting yesterday–I was having one of those days (you know the kind), and it completely got away from me.)

    Your inside-out approach to character building sounds brilliant. It’s creative and, like a lot of creative endeavors, a little bit messy. Like finger painting. I love it!

    For me, though, the name comes first. Once I have a name, I can see a character. The few occasions when, for one reason or another, I’ve had to change a character’s name, the whole character changed with it, even when I tried my level best not to let it happen. Weird, huh?

    • Why thank you, dear! (And PS–I’m having one of those WEEKS, so say no more 😉 )

      Fascinating that the name comes first for you–I’m trying to think if I’ve ever had that experience. Care to share one in particular that came like a lightning bolt to you?

  6. Erika — This is so interesting to read. Especially, as Joanne says, after having read Little Gale Gumbo. I got SUCH a strong visual for those characters (especially Camille), that whatever you’re doing, you’re doing right!

  7. LOVE it…. “Walking, talking, feeling hot mess of a human being.” But, yes, that is what is at the core of good storytelling. You are such a witty writer too (couldn’t help but chuckle at the piano player’s long fingers, in conjunction with talk of sloths). Ha.

    Digging it to truly understand the character’s emotional core and her emotional geography, even — so, so important. In my current WIP (as I edit two of the characters who were weaker than the others), it became clear to me WHY they were weaker: I hadn’t tapped into their souls and dug down to their emotional truths just yet. Now that I’ve gotten to know them better, they are indeed, less cardboard, and more engaging (at least, I hope that they are). I approach the process a little differently than you: months of soul-searching and understanding behind ‘who’ my characters are, their past experiences, their dreams and desires. BUT – as you say, new secrets are revealed as you write, so some things just HAVE to change as you go.

  8. What a great post! Like you, it takes me time to develop my characters — in my current WIP my protagonist has definitely developed over time… I’m in about the 5th draft of edits and I think I finally have an idea of what she really looks like. What’s so weird is everytime I get to the end of the book (editing a draft) and then restart editing it at the beginning, I think I know her personality a little better. And she of course changes from beginning to end… as for names — her first name has remained the same but her last has changed several times. And another character’s name (a friend of the MC) changed — I found her original name in one of the chapters I was editing! YIKES!! Think of the confusion THAT could cause a reader!

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