In Which I Ramble About Characters and Hope It Makes Sense and/or Helps You

I did NOT just put my picture between Diana Gabaldon and JK Rowling. (Except I totally did.)

I've heard that most writers can be split into two groups: those who begin with plot and those who begin with character.

I start with the characters.

Allow me to back up for a moment. Almost two weeks ago, I turned in my latest draft of First Novel. Very, very excited about First Novel. Think First Novel is gorgeous and sexy and want to pour maraschino cherries and dark chocolate across its pages and eat it in bed with a golden spoon.

I'm also very excited about my new project -- Second Novel.

[Which is technically First Novel, and there have been Several Novel Starts in between, but let's not go there. We'll pretend there are only two novels involved -- First and Second. And that's the order they were written.]

But Second Novel? Not so sexy.

Second Novel has had a few incarnations, the latest being last year's NaNoWriMo draft. Which was helpful. I threw out (more like threw up) every idea and whim and question that rattled in my brain, hoping for some of the bits and pieces to click together. Hoping for the story to present itself. And, for the most part, it did. The NaNo draft boldly highlighted what worked and what did not.

Which is a pretty good starting place, if you ask me.

But now I must turn this tangle of old working ideas and newly brainstormed ideas into Second Novel. I have to make it twinkle and hum and twirl. And make sense.

It would be really helpful if the book made sense.

So how does one begin again? Well . . . with how one always begins. With whatever one is most comfortable with. And, for me, that's character.

I LOVE creating characters. LOOOOOOVE.

Everything I've ever written has started with a character. Someone who has popped into my mind, strutted around, and captured my attention. Someone who made me think, "I want to know his story."

[Shameful confession time. I say his, because it's true: all of my stories start with The Boy. ALL. OF. THEM. I know, you'd never guess this about me.]

So how do I turn that idea, that hint of a character, into one that walks and talks and kisses and farts? Into someone who waits until the last moment to file their taxes, is aroused by the smell of laundromats, and can't remember a time when they didn't have the lyrics to R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" memorized?

By asking questions.

Many questions.

I ask questions about every single person who walks across my page -- from the protagonist to the guy walking his poodle. And let's talk about that guy walking his poodle. Who is he? Has he had a good day or a bad day? Does he come here often? Why or why not? I never stop asking questions for information that will never ever ever appear inside my novel. So why do I do it?

J.K. Rowling.

My absolute favorite thing about the Harry Potter series (I have MANY favorite things, but this easily wins above all else), is that every character matters. Every. Single. One. Not only did Jo create one of the most remarkable protagonists of all time -- someone likable but flawed, someone we relate to despite his extraordinary circumstances -- and not only did she create some of the greatest side characters (a fact confirmed by how deeply we felt some of their deaths), but it's truly the little guys who get me. What am I talking about?

Most people who have read the series will recognize these names:

Cormac McLaggen: Hermione's arrogant date to Slughorn's Christmas party
Sir Cadogan: the little knight who lived in a portrait and challenged people to duels
Eloise Midgen: who never appeared in a scene, but we all knew had unfortunate acne

Despite the fact that these are some of the most minor of minor characters -- in a series OVERFLOWING with names -- I know all three of them. Absolutely.

How many other authors can do that?

Diana Gabaldon comes to mind. What I love so much about her Outlander series is that she's given all of her characters history. When Claire travels back in time to 18th century Scotland, she doesn't just run into a bunch of people who help her Do What She Needs To Do. No, she's dropped smack dab into a preexisting conflict, one that has absolutely nothing to do with her. The characters she meets have back story, relationships, heartaches, triumphs, and silly stories -- all things completely unrelated to her.

How many authors do this? How often do you read a story where the minor characters don't simply exist for the sake of the main character?

This is what I strive for. And I'm not claiming that I actually DO it, but I sure as heck try. I want everyone to matter. Which doesn't mean I spend twelve pages -- or even a full paragraph -- on Poodle Guy. But there's something about him. Something I should know. Something my protagonist should notice.

So what is it? What's the guy with the poodle's point?

Of course, I don't waste all day working on Poodle Guy. That would be ridiculous, and just a few minutes of brainstorming is (usually) sufficient. The majority of my attention needs to be focused on my main characters.

Specifically, that character who started it all.

Now -- and I realize this is REALLY SPECIFIC to how I write, but perhaps some of it might be helpful, and that's why I'm sharing (even the embarrassing bits) -- because my novels start with The Boy, and because my protagonist is actually The Girl, this leaves me with a bit of a dilemma.

Who is The Girl?

More often than not, I figure out who she is by figuring out who he is. Again. Always start at the beginning. It's that simple. What made you want to write the story in the first place? That's where you'll get your answers.

So questions. Lots and lots and lots of question. And now we're talking about laundromat arousal and lyric memorizing. Big things, little things, and everything in between.


Start with the basics. Appearance. Where they live. What they do. Who their family is.

And then, ask yourself every other question you can possibly think of. Then think of twenty MORE questions to ask. How would they react to X situation, to Y situation, to Z situation?

The fantastic thing about all this -- if you are like me, and not-so-hot with plotting -- is that by learning everything there is to know about your character, you'll also learn:

(A) What they want (the story!)
(B) Why they can't have it, and what they're trying to do about it (the plot!)
(C) Who else is involved with the wanting/can't having/trying to get.

And if you're like me, (C) also means . . . The Girl.

Hurrah! I've found her!

And once (C) is found, the process is repeated, this time for The Girl. The basic questions, then the harder questions. And then the process is repeated again, for each of the important minor characters.

And now I've got a story.

So to bring this muddle of thoughts back around again, yes. I'm working on Second Novel. I've marked the bits that worked in the last draft, and I'm asking new questions. And I'm finding the story.

And if you're still looking for your story, might I direct you here, to this list compiled by Nick Malysz? I don't know who Nick is and, sadly, the original link has disappeared, but this is the character questionnaire that helped me write First Novel, and the modified version (this one was made for an adult novel, so I tweaked mine for YA) is now helping me discover Second Novel.

Good luck.

And I hope this made some smidgen of sense.


Also, two announcements. The most gigantic huge thanks of all time to Lilie for solving my Blogger text and comma problems. You are amazing!

And as I worked on this site last weekend, something else came to my attention. Something important. I am no longer most frequently discovered in searches for "James McAvoy images."

It's true! I swear!

I'm proud to announce a new winner . . . me!!! The majority of my blog hits now come from searches for "Stephanie Perkins Writer." I'm flattered and humbled that so many people have discovered me, and are interested in learning about --

What's that? I'm lying? What makes you think I'm lying??

Oh fine.

Congratulations to the REAL new winner, "Jim Sturgess images."


Together, we worked hard -- many long hours under very exhausted working conditions -- to make this happen. Here are some pictures from last night's awards ceremony:

". . . and I'd like to thank Julie Taymor for casting me in Across the Universe, without which Steph might've never discovered me. But, most of all, thanks to my beautiful girlfriend, who uses any and every excuse to publish my image on her blog. I love you, Stephanie. I can't wait to see you this weekend. And tell Chris Martin to stop borrowing my shampoo, because I'm tired of finding my bottle empty."

I'm so proud of you, darling. See you soon.


  1. You are very very welcome Steph! I'm so glad that fix worked for you. Believe me, I obsess about the tiny details in my blog (bloody rounded corners took me EONS to figure out) so I know how you feel.
    Also, I love this post! I always start my stories with the Character too, although Setting appears almost as soon as she takes shape.
    Now I am totally itching to get back to my NaNo novel! Will get started by doing the character questionnaire. Cheers!

  2. Wait, you like boys? There are boys in your books? And on your blog? Huh.

    As for character/plot, I am one of those "other types" who gets inspired by plot. But I use very much the same process you do to flesh out characters. I use the same method of relentless questioning-slash-interrogation to figure out plot too, and pretty much every single thing that goes into a book? What if? How about? Why? Why not? Etc etc.

    Great post!

  3. tell me about it, mate. just wait until chris starts using your toothbrush.

  4. Oh, and how I love, love, love your boys. Well, your boy, since I only know the one.

    But I can promise you, you really truly do succeed at this. Amazingly well. I'm a plot-discovers-characters type of writer, but you make me wish I was more like you...

    Pardon me while I whip out the permanent markers and color my hair.

  5. Thanks for the post. I need to ask more questions. I'm going to go take Nick's quiz now.

  6. Anonymous3:38 PM GMT-5

    Dreaming characters is where all of my best stories begin. I simply can't say, "I'm going to write a story about time travel." I begin with an intrigueing character who I decide would be very suited for time travel and something wonderful evolves from that person. Dull plots can be bearable and almost addictive if the characters are amazing. That's why the Mary-Sue Litmus test is so sacred! :-p
    Plus, I adore coming up with names. I spent an entire "revision" period (cough cough) just searching interesting names online for characters.
    Names are improtant.

  7. I need a character first too. Always. I talk to them to find the story. Like my current WIP, I asked my MC were she lived, and she said the Sierra Nevada coastline. Huh? So I keep asking. Turns out CA fell into the ocean. Go figure.

    Great post:)

  8. Yep, I'm a character-type, too, except I always start with the girl. Superb description of how it all works out.

  9. You are sandwiched right between two of my favorite authors, too! I mean, you already have an authorly name and everything!

    I really enjoy reading you blog, especially when you discuss your process. I am addicted to reading about other writer's writing styles. (say that 5 times fast!)

    Anyway, you have a great blog. Good luck to you!

    (the storyqueen)

  10. I. Could. Have. Written. This. Post.

    (Except for the bit about James McAvoy.)

  11. Shelley -- Wow!! I used to read your books during story time at the library! The kids LOVED them. So cool to see you here! Thank you for the compliments, and good luck to you too :)

  12. HA!
    I just make up characters and stop there. Like... imaginary friends. I keep them in a box under my bed.