Mama, the pigs are loose! How to corral all those unruly critters.

Posted by on June 28, 2011

After starting to write your break through novel, you immediately zero in on your heroine and place her in a dreamscape world where she can run and frolic and play. You give her eyes of emerald, rich raven hair and a heart shaped face.

Then your hero enters.

Working through your God-complex, you make him swarthy, built like a Grecian warrior and of course worthy of redemption.

Yikes, here comes the best friend.  Should her eyes brown?

Oh, no. The hero’s father is still alive. Should his eyes be brown? At age 70, is he still built like a Grecian warrior because of the gene pool?

Egad. The hero and heroine, both have spiritual mentors. Maybe these guides should have blue eyes.

Some one, throw some rope. You now have a whole bunch of characters to corral.

I love seat of the pants writing. It feels freeing until those ungrateful characters start showing up and ruining the neat little plot I had in my head. Very few can achieve the mental gymnastics necessary to keep the characters distinct and engaging for 15,000 words let alone the Harlequin or Love Inspired lengths (50,000 to 75,000 words).

Now to strike fear in all the math-hating, statistic-fearing folks, use a spreadsheet. That’s right I said it. Before you ask, I do have a pocket protector. It’s on my good lab coat.

I’m attaching a link for the Character Corral Spreadsheet. This is something I designed that helps me with character development. It is organized in five tabs: Basics, Physical, Speech, Motivation-Goals, and Spiritual Status.

Character Corral Spreadsheet

Basics Tab

To start using the spreadsheet, put the year the story takes place.  This is important because it will automatically calculate your character’s ages on the subsequent tabs. The year is extremely important for “us” historical writers because some things just didn’t exist until  after 1816.  For you contemporary writers with “timeless story”, it is still important to submit a date like 2011. Knowing your character’s age may help you in determining other important things like education level and experiences. No sense in writing that senatorial ballot box voting scene, if your character is a pre-teen and ineligible to vote.

The basics tab also includes other handy things, such as: POV, Story Position (friend, hero, etc.), and Major/Minor.

Physical Tab

Let’s get physical. Olivia Newton John had it right. (I betcha that song will be in your head today.) You have to get physical with your characters, the sooner the better. In addition to a few more general things like a character’s last name, the spreadsheet wants you to list the year of birth and family status (position in his/her family).

It’s always good to know a character’s middle name. Middle names are helpful for pet names, plot twists, deception, and Regency marriage licenses.

This tab also asks for a range of physical characteristics. Not everyone can have heart-shaped faces. I personally want to visit a land where every man is tall dark and handsome. Advocating for scrawny geeks and tubby-lovers, a few diverse body sizes could help in adding realism and texture to your story.

Getting eye color correct in the beginning can save potentially fatal revisions. In this dream world of bodacious men in need of redemption, could the hero bypass a lass with emerald eyes for one with brown? What about brown with flecks of gold?

Speech Tab

Will your character have a “catch” or “go to phrase?” Will some one have a lisp? A cottony brogue perchance? This tab suggests ways to make each character sound and think differently.

Motivations and Goals Tab

You have to know the motivations and goals of your character. This tab lists several questions to ask your characters to get to know them better.

Ask your heroine, what is she desperate to do? Why did she leave the big city and her six-figure job? Hero, what are you desperate to not let the world know.  A desperate character will do or say almost anything to achieve their goals. Angst is a terrible thing to waste.

Spiritual Status Tab

Okay, religious writers can use this tab. Agnostic, too.  I mean why not?

A true understanding of your character’s belief system is essential for the development of your character and the plot. When the hero or heroine has their black moment, trapped in subway at night in a power failure, knowing their belief system will help you show their inner turmoil. Does the hero try to keep his fellow passengers calm with meditation? Does he break a window to help everyone escape because God helps those who help themselves? Does he fall to his knees, and say, “Here I am, Lord.”?

Authors, Rachel Hauck and Susan Warren, often talk about the lies your characters believe. Think about the “lies” as you complete this tab. What beliefs are keeping your characters from succeeding? What made them fall prey to these misconceptions? What influences in their life must they overcome to find freedom?

Use the Spreadsheet

Complete the spreadsheet. Print it out and use it as a reference guide. Hopefully, this helps you reign in all the pigs and season those WIPs with angst-ridden bacon.

One Response to Mama, the pigs are loose! How to corral all those unruly critters.

  1. June Foster

    Hey, Vanessa. You are a genius. I’m using this! But does that make me a pig? June