Characters. The heart and soul of good fiction. Character decisions and actions should dictate plot development, not the other way around.
The first thing I do with a character is visualize that character. The best way to do this is find a representative picture of your character. I pick a movie or TV personality to represent the character. Once I can “see” a character, “hearing” the character is easy for me.
I use Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method to get my character skeletons fleshed out on paper rather than following Syd Fields character creation process. Both are very similar. I’ve found Randy’s process to get to the core of a character essence instantly.
The first step is to write a one-page dossier which deals with 7 key points:
Ambition (what the character wants abstractly)
Story Goal (what the character wants concretely)
Conflict (what prevents the character from reaching the goal)
Epiphany (what the character learns, how the character changes)
A One Sentence Summary (think of this as the character’s logline)
A One Paragraph Summary (expand the logline to one paragraph)
Now, let’s do this for a character. This is what my dossier on Special Agent Mallory Hammond looks like for the forthcoming GREEN MAJIK adventure, Splatterpunk. You are getting a sneak preview into Mallory’s continuing story line in the next novel. Hope it makes you want to read the first one now.
Agent Hammond’s ambition in #2 is the same as it was in #1: To expose the underground cult she knows is operating all over the world.
Her story goal is to hold the alligator farm long enough to get one of the fry specimens out for her squid expert to examine.
The source of Mallory’s conflict in this tale is the FBI hierarchy, Homeland Security and the mysterious Men In Black from MAJESTIC.
Mallory’s epiphany in this adventure is the cult she is pursuing has infiltrated the government at all levels.
The One Sentence Summary: Mallory Hammond finds her investigation under literal siege when Homeland Security arrives to take over and silence her with national security.
The One Paragraph Summary: When DHS shows up being led by a MIB and attempts to seize the investigation by force, Hammond uses the Hostage Rescue Team like infantry to form a blockade and temporarily put the aggression into a stand-off while she gets one of the fry specimen prepped for smuggling out in an ice cooler brought by the boys to house the PBR in. She has Fender send her state police as escorts to ensure they get out without being ambushed by black ops. She goes to see the squid expert Fender has located. She takes the fry specimen to Dr. Donovon West of Miskatonic University located in Arkham, Massachusetts.
There are two more steps in the Snowflake Method to fully flesh out the character. I do the next step fully and the final step partially.
Take your paragraph summary of your character’s story line and write a full page, page and a half treatment which tells the entire story arc of the character inside your novel.
This is what the treatment looks like:
Special Agent Mallory Hammond receives an urgent phone call from BRAD FENDER. The shit has hit the fan. The Director is under siege from Homeland over her little monster hunt. Homeland is en route to her location, whatever she has to do to get the evidence out she better do now. Hammond hangs up on him and starts deploying the HRT to hold a line and prevent the invaders from getting access to the farm house. She enlists Ronson and Gage to assist her in snagging one of the specimens. It is a harrowing experience getting that damn squid out of the tank and into a small shipping crate filled with sea water. When the three emerge back outside lugging the shipping crate, the rest of the HRT are blockading the Homeland Security convoy. The black Suburbans are filled with MIB agents. The squid gets stowed in the trunk of Hammond’s GSA sedan. Then she goes to the skirmish line and meets the MIB in charge: MR. ADAMA. A terse exchange. The MIBs back out of the drive to allow Hammond and the HRT to exfil. Hammond goes directly to the airfield. At the airfield, she gets on a commercial flight with the squid to fly directly to Arkham, Massachusetts.
The campus of MISKATONIC UNIVERSITY. Fender is blowing up her phone again. She was suppose to fly back to D.C.! Prior to the balloon going up, Fender had found her squid expert, one DR. DONOVAN WEST of the Miskatonic Oceanographic Institute. She tells him he’s just going to have to hunt her down and hangs up. Then she drops her FBI issued smart phone into a fish tank and proceeds to turn Dr. West’s conceptual universe upside down. Dr. West has been in touch and go negotiations with a producer from Animal Planet for a reality TV series featuring his expedition to find a live giant squid in the wild. After seeing the squid fry and hearing Hammond’s tale about what was found in Louisiana – his TV series idea takes a quantum leap. He rudely excuses himself to call the producer – get the hell out here with cameras now! When the cameras burst onto the scene, her first instinct is to punch aqua danger boy’s lights out. Dr. West is something of an orator and quickly points out the insulating advantages she might have transferring her investigation from the FBI to Animal Planet and his reality TV show. And, yeah, Mallory Hammond sees the advantages immediately as well.
A cultist hit team tries to take back the avatar. Mallory Hammond engages in a blistering gun battle and foot chase with the hit team, flanked by a daredevil Animal Planet cameraman. The intense footage is aired immediately along with the earlier taped testimony of Hammond’s detailing how the squid fry was taken into custody. Now the FBI witch hunt to drum Hammond out of the bureau has hit a sensational snag – the TV series is an instant mass phenomenon. Mallory Hammond is now the bureau’s biggest PR asset.
The final step is to create a full blown character biography detailing all the usual stuff: name, rank, serial number, hair color, ethnic heritage, birth day, birth place, schools, all that down in the weeds detail. I don’t get wrapped around the axle about the character biography. When I have everything I’ve just revealed, I know everything I need to know to start writing.
In other words, I now know what to write.
For the sake of covering all the bases, use this link to download a character biography template from me.
The next installment is going to wrap up this discussion of all my secret plotting methods. See you there.