I’m preparing to write the 6th mystery in my Enos Hobson Leavenworth Mysteries Series; therefore, some of that which I will share with you is fresh in my mind. As a professional storyteller, I have always believed that the best stories are based around their characters. If we don’t consider characters, there is no basis for plot.
When I wrote my first book in my series, I considered who I would need to tell my story. I named them, assigned them roles, defined their appearances, defined their interactions, and considered their back stories to explain who they were and why. I developed a computer data base to keep all that straight, which became my Bible or ready character reference. That data base has become rather extensive now. I needed a system to determine how my characters should change or stay the same. The following is a method that seems to work well for me:
Character Development Spreadsheet
You can use a spread sheet or a table in a word processor to do this. Create three columns, 1 for the character’s name. 1 for the good things, & 1 for the bad things. This is not a Bible but a simple set of statements of where each character is at the start of the story and in what directions should he or she go in this story. It looks something like this:
Good – Negatives
Proud of HS graduation. – Doesn’t know where money for college will come from.
Happy she & Tommy graduated. – Going away to college. Needs to break up with Tommy.
Bill (Tommy’s Brother):
Looking forward to being star of football team. – Will become paralyzed by a car wreck soon.
Plays favorites w/ Tommy. – Bill’s injury causes Dad to begin drinking heavily again, losing job.
Has been gone to reform school. – Gets out, gets drunk, crashes into Bill’s car to cause the injury.
Now, this is way too simplistic of an example, but it helps to develop character motivations and directions in the story. You can see the possibilities for conflict already. Is Tommy going to possibly be placed in a position of either ignoring the family problems, forget about college to help the family with Bill since Dad is no longer capable of doing so? Should he acquiesce to the breakup or try to go to Lucy’s school? What will happen to Jimbo. Should he become a major character who reforms and takes on responsibility to help Bill throughout the story? Or, should he be sent to jail for the rest of the story?
A lot depends on what has happened in previous stories and deciding if the characters should stay the same or should they grow and develop in different directions? Once all this is decided, you can decide how they fit within the context of a set of plot points. In other words, where have they been, where are they right now, and where will they be going.
Now it’s time to list the chapter numbers and consider what happens in the story along the way to the end by considering the good and negative aspects of the characters. I write a few sentences about what should happen in each chapter right under the chapter number. Those stay in as a reference until I write each chapter, after which I delete them. This insures the characters go in the directions I felt they should be going. Now I realize this process may sound too much like a strait jacket to you seat-of-your-pants writers, but there is plenty of room in this structure for your muse to run wild. None of this has to be locked in concrete. There are times when I have changed the descriptive sentences under a chapter number to accommodate a creative idea I got that would change everything. The methodology is meant as a means to energize creativity while keeping the story on track with good reasons for all the characters doing what they do.
I do the spread sheets and then I use Contour software (designed for screenplays, but I’ve found it works for novels as well) which asks pertinent questions that cause one to create a meaningful story framework. Once I’m done with that, I combine the considerations of both approaches to create the chapter outlines.