A few of us New England Broads and our friends who write speculative fiction recently created a local writer's group that covers us non-Boston writers. We call ourselves Traveling Java, and I'm loving the chemistry we have.
Most of us are submitting ongoing stories for critique, with some breaks for short fiction. My homework for this next meeting (besides continuing my writing and changes) was to put together two things: A cheat-sheet of the massive character list and a map of the castle the protagonist lives in.
Last night I took care of the first assignment. (Friday, while at the artistic haven of my friends in CT, I'll take care of the map part.)
In any case, just writing a very brief paragraph for each character (single spaced) took me about 6 hours of work and left me with an 8-page document.
I'm extremely pleased with my efforts, though.
The 6 hours and 8 pages were well spent for a number of reasons:
I hammered out clearer motivations for side-characters and side-motivations for main characters. For example, I didn't realize how much Rowan disliked his next older sister, Lily, until that appeared in his mini-bio. It's not even that Lily is a drama-queen-to-the-max that Rowan doesn't get; it's the fact that Heather, the sibling he's closest with, spends more time with Lily than him.
I got all the character names straight. You have no idea how many little symbols I'd spread throughout the MSIP (manuscript in progress) for the characters I knew, but had forgotten the names of. Or who I'd misnamed or given the wrong nickname to. Yes, these are all people in my head, but don't you even get your family and friends mixed up sometimes?
I realized deeper meanings to some of the "throwaway" lines in dialogue that will have repercussions later. I'm about 2/3 through the ms now, and Heather - or Monkey, the talking cat - will throw out some line that I know needs to be there, but I don't know why. I don't do any major deletes on the drafting just for this reason… I get so much now!
I straightened out those pesky details. The twins realllly don't have eyes that change color, I just can never remember what it's supposed to be. Now, I can check.
I realized animals are almost as much a pain in novels as in role-playing games. They all have names and personalities and they need to get fed and they need special food. From a writing perspective, they need to keep popping up, like what dog wouldn't go investigate kids sneaking through the house after everyone's in bed? And you need to give that popping up a purpose. I mean, I could cut a bunch of them, but Heather told me they all are there, and sometimes it's just not worth arguing with your main character!
Those are only a few of the things I learned in the exercise. Besides just doing the exercise, I think the timing is key. At a little over halfway through the rough draft, I know how most of the plot will work itself out. (Here's hoping that keeping all her animals prevents my dear protagonist from throwing in an unexpected monkey wrench somewhere). Anyway, that also means that I know all the characters that will be on screen or mentioned (again, fingers crossed for no surprises). But, as I discover more of my characters' inner workings, I have time to adjust the conclusion and make it stronger.
If I recall correctly, this is also about the time I sat down and worked out much of my "bible" for Kyra Starbard's world, 2/3 of the way through draft 1. It gave me renewed focus and I ploughed through to the end.
Which, if I also recall correctly, was actually the end of the sequel that I thought was all part of the same book. So, ahem, when Kyra's picked up by an agent and then a publishing house, the sequel is already drafted. Yay less work later!
In any case, if you haven't done it already, have some fun making at least your character bible. You'll be surprised how much it helps you create a better draft and drive you to the finish!