Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
10 Steps to Creating Memorable Characters
A Writer’s Workbook
by Sue Viders, Lucynda Storey, Cher Gorman, Becky Martinez
Paperback: 176 pages, November 2006, ISBN: 978-1580650687, 1580650686
The great agent and author Noah Lukeman states in his book The Plot Thickens that all good fiction is character driven. I agree completely. A good setting, a good plot, and the best literary skills won’t mean anything if your characters aren’t up to snuff. I’d go so far as to say that you could possibly get by with an average plot, setting, and writing skills if your characters are great. Great characters drive plot and create their own literary drama. But how do you get great characters? One of the simpler ways is to follow the guidelines in 10 Steps to Creating Memorable Characters. This large format workbook is super easy to follow and actually kind of fun, as novel writing goes.
The book takes you from start to finish through the development of both key and secondary characters – you just fill in the blanks to indicate things like physical description, profession, history, relationships, personality, body language and speech, wardrobe and possessions, and environment and daily living. As the title suggests, there are 10 steps in all – including the final one, which is putting it all together. For each step or section, there are exercises to help you gain a deeper understanding of what you’re trying to do. These might include things like writing mini-stories, exploring angles on your character under different circumstances, or exploring other characters in films or literature.
You’ll probably do one of the things in the book anyway. It’s likely that you’ll define some of your character’s clothing, and his or her physical appearance, come up with a name and a few complications, regardless of what kind of book you’re writing or your level of experience. But few people would go to the extent that Viders, Storey, Gorman, and Martinez are suggesting, and without this kind of detail, your characters just won’t be as rich. You could wing it as you go along, letting your character develop his or herself, but — as the authors rightly suggest — that’s a very hard way to write a novel, and it’s so easy to lose your way.
Without good, in-depth characters to begin with, even the most exciting premise can stall, as you just don’t know about the people driving it forward. While writing out the kind of detail that 10 Steps asks you to put in for each character at the front end — that is, before you write — may seem onerous, it makes the actual novel writing process much quicker and easier. I didn’t say easy (novel writing is about as easy as childbirth). Just easier, and a lot more likely to actually get done.
Although the book isn’t large, it does pack a surprising amount of information, including a range of informative sideboards, lists, references, tables, and anecdotes from the considerable body of work — at least 30 published books between them — created by the authors. Each of them is generous with her knowledge – providing honest, down-to-earth advice about how they write and work, and the way in which their characters move forward. There are “words of wisdom”, information about genre, and even advice on dealing with minor, “walk-on” characters. There are innovative, rarely seen tips throughout the book, including such ideas as the keeping of an alphabet chart, or how to pull together a family and friends mind map.
You don’t have to go the whole hog either. The examples they provide are actually fairly brief, and a good character can be outlined quite well in a few days, though I tend to work much more slowly and spend a long time on each section. One of the bits that I found most useful was step 9 – The Character Diamond. This is really a plotting exercise, but it’s done with the character specifically in mind, looking at what they want and the drivers of those wants. It’s simple, but works like a charm.
Not only does this kind of extensive outlining help create better characters – it gives you an almost ready-made synopsis for sending out later. 10 Steps to Creating Memorable Characters a terrific workbook, whose simplicity belies its power. It has been designed to be effective for both screenwriting and novel writing. I’m well into my second novel, and despite this book being ideally used at the front end, I found it a terrific tool for gaining a much better sense of my characters and helping me make the plot much more directly driven by them. Although many of the examples are basic ones relating to romance and science fiction, I recommend to any writer who wants an effective roadmap through the foggy and often inchoate haze that constitutes pulling together a fully-fledged fictive dream.
The only negative thing I have to say about this exceptional book is that I intend to use it each time I write a novel, and hence plan a long life for it. That means I won’t be defacing the enticing workbook pages with my handwritten scribble. Instead I just copied each section onto my PC and worked with it there. I can imagine this being one example where an electronic version would be valuable. On the other hand, there is always the photocopier.