One of the recurring lessons when it comes to writing, and the pursuit of that final draft that becomes something we’d be proud of having published, is that not all sentences start perfect.
We’re encouraged to see the first draft as exactly that, one in a sequence of progressive edits, rewrites and drafts with ever-increasing ordinals – and not as an only draft. There are times when the words will come out almost precisely as they stand when you’re ready to show others, but it all takes work.
This isn’t where I lecture you on how it’s not meant to be easy, but instead talk about the actual bits and pieces of rewriting and working through the less tangible elements of a story, at least at it has applied to my own writing.
I tend to work a lot with imagery, mood and tone, where I know the general sense of either what will happen, the character, or the location, but none of the specifics are really there. The best analogy for this would be I know the palette that I’ll be painting with, and I have the charcoal sketch on the canvas, but I can’t visualise the final painting yet. Most of the time, having the sense of what will be written without clear requirements or ideas means there will be exploratory writing.
It’s ideal for when you need a clearer concept.
A lot of characters come with a complete-enough personality, in that we know our scientist is either going to be outgoing or distant or often preoccupied with things that aren’t present. If we pick a point in the character’s past, we might know what formative things happened there; an accident in a lab, a colleague sabotaging their research, or a protégé learning different truths or morals to the lesson they tried to teach. It doesn’t need to be vital to the story that they belong to, but as an alternative to writing a character profile, you can write the character.
Characters may become autonomous for some writers, but it doesn’t happen for everybody.
Writing out the character will help in focusing on their personality, appearance and mannerisms, so that when it comes to writing the story, their identity is as fixed to you as it would be writing fan-fiction. Working out the notes you have around a character and making that manifest during writing isn’t easy, but exploring the character through writing will allow you to hone in on something.
For me, it starts with the voice and posture. Is this character hunched over, or standing small? Are they trying to occupy as much space as they can, or constrict their dimensions to be beyond notice. Deep voice? Accent? What’s their diction like? A little beyond that, we get into the facets of their personality, which exist not only in their own right, but interact with each other. The character that is insensitive but polite will have their insensitivity manifest differently to the character that is insensitive but frequently distracted. The more aspects to their personality there are, the greater the influence between them.
These aspects influence how the character relates to the rest of the cast in your story, and the superfluous extras that show up in writing exercises. It manifests in what they idealise, what they dream about or hope for, and even in how they handle the environment. If you put them in a room with a box, do they open or investigate it, or give it no thought at all? What contents would put them at ease, and what would leave them stricken with fear or sorrow?
The details can be embellished to ridiculous degrees, though you’re more likely to hit upon the characterisation through writing the character than compiling a list of the character’s favourite movies or preferred flavour of icecream- those aren’t key to a person’s character. Writing it out also tests the written character against our preconceived concepts, and when our insensitive, tired scientist pours out her protégé’s formula and shrugs indifferently at the protests, we might feel that the reaction doesn’t match the image we had in our head, and instead change so that she instead mumbles excuses, and stops mid-sentence to yawn (which aggravates the situation just as much).
The same technique can be applied to the locations, objects or even plot.
What begins as a vague city of dreariness can become more fixed through exploring the imagery we have, honing in on the moods that feel a part of it. Weather, temperament, wealth and openness – all additional details that give a better sense of what exists. It isn’t that there’s a right way and a wrong way, or that a setting needs to have a certain look and feel to work with a story, but that putting those details in allows the place to reinforce the motifs and themes. If a city is poor, rich, or divided harshly between the two, the weather can take on any form possible, and still amplify the social disparities. Putting a quiet village in the middle of the tropics versus a dry desert, the same ideas of ruin, luxury or oppression can still exist, but the environment repeats those ideas in different ways.
The important part of the approach is to see what you’re writing as an initial draft, and that it’s allowed to be bad. You’re also allowed to change your mind if you feel that what you’ve written matches what you’d previously pictured, but no longer believe it works. What you can’t do is rewrite nothing.