Monday, December 5, 2022

Back to Basics by Ashley E. Sweeney



Who is your most memorable character in literature? Jay Gatsby? Scarlett O’Hara? Sherlock Holmes? Gandalf? What is it about that particular character that has stayed with you over the years?

Scout Finch tops my list, the indomitable young girl in Harper Lee’s 1960 classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout’s naiveté, coupled with her tomboyishness and blunt honesty, creates a flawed yet fully fleshed character who’s stayed with me since I first read the novel in the early 1970s. Even when I taught a unit on TKAM every year in high school English, I never tired of Scout or her earnestness. If anything, her character grew on me.

So how do we, as authors, create memorable characters in our own works? Knowing our characters inside and out, sometimes before they hit the page, is one of our most important tasks as authors. 

Think of it like dating. You don’t marry someone you hardly know (well, not usually!) It can take weeks or months (or in my case, years) to decide if that certain someone is right for us. We assess, observe, and question our potential mate’s inner and outer characteristics as we experience shared events and situations. 

Does he/she/they have road rage? Negative political views? A nasty habit? Does he/she/they have a penchant to do good in the world? Accept others, warts and all? Love wildly? All of this factors into our decision whether to take a chance on a relationship.

The same goes for characters. Who are they? And why should readers spend time with them?

Early on in every manuscript, my (very detail-oriented) editor asks for a five-pronged character map for each of my characters. Talk about time consuming! When I’d rather be writing! But it’s proved an invaluable tool for each novel.

Here is a sample:

Character Worksheet 

Be as specific as possible 

Vital Statistics - Physical Traits - Socio/Economic Situation -  Gut Reactions
Full Name: Height: Education: Certainty vs. Change: Gender: Weight: Occupation(s):
Confusion vs. Understanding: Age: Ethnicity/Race: Income:
Defeat vs. Success: Born: Hair:
Attitude toward wealth/ poverty: Despair vs. Joy:
Now Resides: Eyes:
Jealousy vs. Acceptance: Birth Order:
Striking Features: Personality Loss vs. Gain:
Parents: Physical Flaws: Introvert/Extrovert/Other:
Love vs. Hate: Siblings: Habits: Mental Illness (if any):
Panic vs. Calm: Spouse (if any): Health: Strengths:
Worthiness vs. Unworthiness: Children (if any):
Skills: Weaknesses: Pertinent Backstory: Hobbies:
Triggers: Disabilities: Spiritual Life (if any): Speech 

After this exercise, take the five category headlines (Vital Statistics, Physical Traits, Socio-Economic Situation, Personality, Gut Reactions), winnow it down, and write a character synopsis. I repeat this exercise for every major character in the book, first the worksheet and then the paragraph.

Note that these are more detailed for primary characters than secondary characters. Tertiary characters and cameo characters are not as fleshed out (or at all).

Here’s an example of a character synopsis of the protagonist, Ruby Fortune, in my recent release, Hardland.

Ruby Fortune: protagonist; VS: Ruby Barstow Fortune, b. 1873 in Tucson, Arizona (6 years old (1879) to 34 years old (1907) in span of novel), only child of now-deceased George “Big Burl” Burlingame Barstow, widowed, mother of five boys (one deceased), resides in Jericho, A.T. north of Tucson, kills husband, Willie Fortune, in self-defense, swindles co-mine owners for claim of Silver Tip Mine outside Jericho, A.T. 

PT: Short, blonde, thin, flat-chested, weathered face, fit, attractive, low voice

S-E: Eighth-grade education, "Girl Wonder" (sharpshooter in her father’s Triple B Traveling Carnival and Wild West Show), now owner/proprietor of Jericho Inn/The Miracle.

P: Extrovert, outspoken, hard worker. Character Strengths: willful, loyal. Character Weaknesses: details, men. Triggered by nightmares of past abuse. Admits mistakes. In awe of nature.

GR: Difficulty working through change. If taken once by someone, vows not to be taken again (exception: Willie Fortune). Accepts everyone at face value, although not without judgment; slow to alter first impression, but does, when warranted (for good or evil). She-bear about sons; puts them first at her own expense. Struggles with relationship to God. At times, hot-tempered and foul-mouthed; at other times, reflective and soulful. Often own worst enemy. Makes mistakes in relationships. Works to manage pain and panic. Questions whether she is worthy. 

You’d be surprised how many times I returned to this synopsis while writing. When Ruby is hot-tempered, her mouth runs ahead of her thoughts. Check. I’m being consistent. When she’s reflective, she goes somewhere deep, into a place reserved for interior dialogue. Check, again. Consistency to character is paramount.

If it sounds like a lot of work to create characters through devices such as worksheets and synopses, it is. I contend you’ll be more satisfied with your characters, though, and so will your editors and readers.

But wait, there’s more!


After getting to know my characters, my editor then assigns a chap-by-chap plot summary worksheet, using the following classic plot template:


Opening: Falling Action: Inciting Incident: Denouement: Rising Action: Ending: Climax

My entry for the first chapter of Hardland begins this way:

September 7, 1899, Jericho, Arizona Territory


Weather detailed: windy/cloudy/dark
Locale detailed: dry/unforgiving/spare
Character detailed: stature/anxiety/bruised neck from recent abuse

Inciting Incident:

Ruby Fortune navigates steep, dangerous incline to Silver Tip Mine outside Jericho, A.T., almost falling into a crevice

Rising Action: 

Ruby Fortune arrives at Silver Tip Mine with forged will of dead husband Willie Fortune to claim ¼ of mine ownership; plans to buy a dilapidated roadhouse with funds 


Ruby confronts and pulls gun on mine owner, Jimmy Bugg

Falling Action: 

Sheriff Sheldon Sloane arrives at mine on business


Sloane arranges for Bugg to pay Ruby the next day at Jericho First National Bank


Ruby and Sloane ride back to Jericho in middle of monsoon

As a classic “pantser,” this worksheet is not nearly as detailed as outlines of classic “plotters,” but it does give structure to each chapter. And remember to end each chapter, as novelist Olivia Hawker says, with a “cymbal crash” (others call it a “cliff-hanger” or an “uh-oh” moment, something to keep your readers going and not wanting to put your book down).

In closing, there is much we can do before we even start our stories to flesh out characters and give our stories shape. Of course, authors must be flexible as writing is underway. Maybe a character develops an unforeseen ailment to deepen the plot, or we have to switch up or delete chapters for clarity. Life—in reality and in fiction—is full of surprises. Be open to them!

Until next time, Happy Writing!

Ashley E. Sweeney is the winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for her debut novel, Eliza Waite. A native New Yorker, she is a graduate of Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, and resides in Tucson. Answer Creek, released in May 2020, is her second novel. Her third novel, Hardland, is set in the Arizona territory at the beginning of the 20th century. It was released on September 13, 2022. Find out more about Ashley at: 


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