I’ve often thought that there are plenty of parallels between the writing process and a Bob Ross painting show. The first bit gets it out there — you prime your canvas and sketch in the bulk of the design. This is one of the most vital parts, because you have to just get the story out there. It’s rough and unfinished — full of unwelcome adverbs, perhaps — but it’s also integral. It lays a foundation. Establishes the big three: Plot, People, and Place. (Like my alliteration?) It might be a verbal equivalent of a pencil sketch or stick figures, but it’s important because it commits you to the story, to the telling of it. It gets it out of your brain and onto paper.
The next steps are to add depth and texture. You shade those fluffy clouds and add color to the happy trees. It’s what takes your vomit draft from two dimensions to three. It’s making sure that what populates your story — the characters, places, and events — doesn’t blur together. It’s when you consciously make this shape into a bush and that shape into a boulder. In a rough sketch or vomit draft, they both might resemble an amorphous blob. It’s your job to make sure your readers can tell who’s who at an early stage and not mix the two up like a big leafy rock.
Finally — after a lot of toiling about — you put leaves on your trees and waves in your river. Maybe a soaring little bird. That’s the moment writers and painters wait for, but no one can get there if all the layers don’t exist in harmony.
Where I am now is stage two. Specifically, my current goal is to make boulders and bushes. In my first draft, some of the characters seemed interchangeable. Forgettable. Ultimately unworthy of print. The joy of this stage comes from getting to know these characters much as I would a human being. It means finding out about their back stories and how they relate to the plot, choosing careful details to flesh them out. Making sure that if they do something out of character — which the best characters do — it has a reason and an explanation based in the reality of that person.
Every writer has a voice. It’s that sense you get from an overall work. Classical, quirky, edgy, humorous, morbid, forceful, blunt, lyrical. It’s how they turn a phrase and create moments that get your attention because they are different than what you’d say or maybe similar. Whatever categories describe a writer’s tone, they ought to be muted when her characters open their mouths. The characters shouldn’t all sound like the writer. Dour characters shouldn’t be overly exuberant until they have been well-established, and then it should convey irony or show a by-product of that character’s development. Even secondary characters should have some texture.
I know my characters well enough to be alarmed if they do something strange or say something that sounds more like someone else. I have one very reserved vampire I caught grinning a few times when he seldom cracks a smile. He isn’t broody or self-pitying — he just isn’t the bubbly type. Needless to say, I must have thrown in a few grins as filler, which have since been chopped from the draft.
I’ve loved picking apart the motivations of my characters, realizing that they are complex people who sometimes surprise me. Often. In doing so, I can go back and make them from a formless lump into a happy little bush or boulder. It’s my brush strokes that bring them to life, so I better do it well.