Besides having an idea or question to explore, and once I actually begin with the first words on the first page, I begin building my fictional world. It grows right along with the settings, usually multiple, with the characters, usually many, and with the conflicts within the story. At some point, I set up an Excel spreadsheet to help organize my thoughts.
Let’s take two of my characters: Detective Pat O’Connor, and an adolescent boy, Brian Evans. Their worlds have been known to collide, as do the settings and the interplay between other characters.
For O’Connor, there are two other cops with whom he interacts with the most: Detective Jamie Graff, and O’Connor’s partner and best friend, Detective Paul Eiselmann. However, the characters interacting with O’Connor are not limited to these two men. There are Detectives Greg Gonnering and Carlos Lorenzo. There are Detectives Tom Albrecht, Brooke Beringer, Ronnie Desotel, and Alex Jorgenson.
For Brian, there are his brothers: Brett, George, Randy, Billy, Bobby, and Michael (also known as Two). There are his mom and dad, Jeremy and Vicky. There are his and his brother’s friends: Danny Limbach, Sean Drummond, Troy Rivera, Big Gav, G-Man, and Chris Granger. Add to this a teacher or coach, and suddenly, there are a bunch of characters to contend with as a writer.
Typically, not all play a major role. Typically, I don’t use all who are available. But also typically, there will be other characters to deal with depending upon the story I’m writing.
Let’s look at settings for O’Connor. He has his two-bedroom apartment in a part of Waukesha near Carroll College, inhabited by college students and other folks who work in Waukesha, in Milwaukee, or in one of the burbs near Waukesha. There is the police or sheriff’s department, and his beat up car that fits with his undercover work. In Blaze In, Blaze Out, there is Chicago and the courthouse, as well as the Northwoods of Wisconsin. In Spiral Into Darkness, there was Milwaukee and several neighborhoods and suburbs. In Betrayed, there was the Navajo Nation Reservation in Arizona. In Caught in a Web, there was a seedy, rundown, semi-industrial part of Waukesha. (Because I lived in Waukesha for many years, those places still exist and I describe them as I remember them.)
For Brian, there is Waukesha North High School (where I used to teach and coach- fond memories). There is the football field, the soccer field, and the field house where the basketball court is housed. At home, there is the family room, the kitchen table, his bedroom, and the barn housing horses. There are friends’ houses, places kids go to eat, and movie theaters. All exist, again as I remember them, and typical of my books.
One of the criticisms I receive from some readers is regarding the multitude of characters I have in my books. My answer to them is that such is life. For instance, think about the number of people you interacted with just before sitting down to read this? Five? Ten? Fifteen or more? Some important, some not so much. Your wife or husband or significant other. Your children. Friends and co-workers. The person taking your order at Starbucks or McDonald’s. Your boss.
Many of the characters in your life are mentioned only. Some, you interact with longer or more than others, but again, not much impact. Others? I’d wager they are heavily involved in your life.
In my books, I create “life” for my characters. There is an interplay between them. There is the push-pull that we all experience in life between those who are in our lives. Because I want my characters to have a “life” and who “live and breathe”, there will be characters that need to be dealt with, both as a writer and as a reader.
Something to remember: the time I take from beginning to the end of the first draft and the eventual publication of the book is approximately nine months or a year. One thing that helps me is an Excel spreadsheet. I use this spreadsheet as ideas, characters, and settings occur to me. It helps organize my writing and my thoughts. Some characters listed on the spreadsheet might not make it into the final draft. They are on the spreadsheet and sometimes in earlier drafts because they intrigue me or make me question, “what if?” or “how about?”
Below is an example of what my spreadsheet looks like for my current work in progress (WIP):
Character Chart for Fan Mail
Character Name Relationship in Story
Nada Sherry Awkward girl, crush on Danny, brings him cookies and stuff
Penny Rios Brian’s favorite teacher – English
Tommy Harrison PE teacher and Boys Basketball Coach
Bob Farner Assistant Principal
Gloria Beatleman Counselor
Chuck Gobel Principal
The idea and concept is simple: a place to keep the names and simple characteristics straight as I write my book. Notice I don’t dwell on what they look like. I don’t need to, because I see and hear each character as I write.
There is another section of my spreadsheet I’m quite fond of. This section includes words or phrases, bits of conversation, and quotes I might include in my book. It looks like this:
Phrases for Book
Your biggest fan is a stranger. Your biggest hater is someone you know.
Children are transient in our lives, but perhaps they are echoes of the best of us.
“Little things, Jimmy. It’s the little things that rip you apart. It’s the little things that get you caught.” – Joe “Deke” Deakon in Little Things
The winter whispers songs in the early morning.
We all make choices, but in the end, our choices make us.
As I come across something that pops into my head or hear in conversation, (I steal a great number of things from the kids and staff I work with who wander the hallways and who sit in the cafeteria or library) I place it on my spreadsheet. The words, phrases, or quotes enhance my writing and cause the reader to say, “Hmmm.” That’s important to me.
I hope this idea helps you as you write. I think it can also help you as you read. Please know I’m open to hearing about tips you have as you write. I learn (or steal, as the case may be) from you and other writers. You are my best teachers!