Sue Harrison’s “Writing the Third Dimension” – part 3: The Boyfriend List

Welcome! Over the next many months we invite you to return here, specifically on the fourth Thursday of each month for the newest installment of Sue Harrisons teaching: Writing The Third Dimension. You can read all the segments by clicking on the page title WRITING THE THIRD DIMENSION, found under Writers’ Helps & Workshops on the drop-down menu. Please feel free to ask questions and leave comments for Sue. Now for the topic for month three:

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“Writing the Third Dimension” – part 3: The Boyfriend List

When I was twelve, I wrote a Boyfriend List. My list included all the dream qualities I considered ideal in a boyfriend. Most of it was very superficial: blue eyes, good athlete, smart, cute, and nice. Cute and nice? Ah well, I was only twelve.

Writing that list didn’t help me much during the angst years of junior high; however, it was the first indication that I would take after my maternal grandfather and become a list writer. I live on lists. Grocery lists, lists of goals, book idea lists, books I’ve read, housework to-do… I could go on, but I’ll spare you. If you are a list-maker, you’re going to like what I have to say next. If not, please give my suggestions at least a bit of consideration. I think they will be helpful for you as you write your novel.

You’ve been fostering a friendship with your main character. You’ve been carrying this brand new person in your head, having conversations with him, asking questions, getting to know her. That’s the creative Right Brain part. Now comes the Left Brain stuff. You need to write everything down. If you’re a “fly by the seat of your pants” kind of writer, you might resist doing that, but sometimes creativity has to bow to analysis. Your novel will have a much better chance to make it all the way to publication if you know your character so well that you convey his motivations and reactions so that they make sense to the reader throughout the novel. (And you also want the blue-eyed girl in the first chapter to still have blue eyes in the last chapter.) 

Most of you have done a character sketch, maybe when you were in junior high or high school. A character sketch? Yes, all this has been leading up to that old standard, the character sketch. (No histrionics, please!)

My usual character sketch includes these items: name, age, race, birth date, nationality, birthplace, hair color, eye color, skin color, facial characteristics, body type, unusual physical characteristics (tattoos, birthmarks, freckles and so on), weight, height, body language/mannerisms, voice, speech quirks (clichés, catch phrases), time period in which she/he lives, favorite food, favorite animal and television show and movie and book and music, favorite person, his/her parents, siblings, relatives, pets, jobs held, and schooling.

The list could be almost endless, and I’m sure that you’ll think of characteristics that I haven’t included. Your character sketch will vary, novel to novel. A character who lives in the 1800s will not have a favorite television show, of course, but he may have a favorite saddle. In my Alaska trilogies all characters have brown eyes and dark hair, so that was easy, but I needed to use other physical characteristics to help me – and my readers – differentiate one character from another. That was a little more complex.

You’ll need a sketch for each main character and probably for your primary villain. You may find yourself changing things in your character sketch as you progress through this novel, so an area for “additional notes” is a good idea. Don’t be afraid to throw in MORE than you probably need to know. Even though these facts may never come to light within the novel, the more you understand about your character, the better job you’ll do writing about him. Also, you never know when an unexpected twist may change the course of your novel. Characters do have a tendency to wrestle the keyboard away from the writer. That’s when I benefit from re-reading my character notes.

My character sketches get pretty messy by the end of my novel and often degenerate into layers of sticky-notes, but at least I have a reference to what I’ve done, changed, thought, and decided during the weeks and months of writing. 

What works best for me is to keep two ring binders for each novel I’m writing. One binder is for the chapters of my current draft. (You’ll need a four- or five-inch binder for this.) I use dividers between each chapter for easy reference. The other binder is for my research notes and also includes my character sketch notes and good stuff like the people to include in my author’s acknowledgements, reviewers who may want to read an ARC (advanced reader’s copy) of the novel, and maps. 

It comes down to this. You don’t need to keep all the little stuff in your head. Make lists, fill notebooks, write character sketches. That will leave room in your brain for the muse to stretch out and get comfortable!

(And as for me, it turns out that a writing a Boyfriend List was good preparation for creating novels. Who knew?)

My question for you: Are you a left-brained, analytic person or more of a seat-of-the-pants kind of writer? 

Any questions for me?

Happy Writing and Many Blessings!

Sue

*Writing the Third Dimension, copyright, 2010 Sue Harrison*

Sue HarrisonBestselling author, Sue Harrison, has written two Alaska trilogies: The Ivory Carver Trilogy and The Storyteller Trilogy, and a middle readers’ book SISU. Prior to the publication of her novels, Harrison was employed at Lake Superior State University as a writer and acting director of the Public Relations Department and as an adjunct instructor in creative writing and advanced creative writing. For more information, click here. To inquire about booking Sue for workshops or speaking engagements this year, click here.

Thanks for joining us! Please feel free to leave your questions and comments. We invite you come back April 25, 2013, for part 4.

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21 responses to “Sue Harrison’s “Writing the Third Dimension” – part 3: The Boyfriend List

  1. Thank you, Lynn, for another opportunity to present this writing workshop on your Blog. I love interacting with your readers!

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  2. Ha Ha, Sue. I love hearing that you end up with piles of sticky notes! I’ve tried spreadsheets (to get chronology of story lined up with real historic events), sticky notes all over the closet door, notebooks … sometimes I think we need scrapbooks! This is a great tip — when editors say “deepen the character” they mean “How could the character’s response and speech reveal their personality and motivations?”. The Boyfriend List really helps nail down character.

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  3. Thank you, Janie! My problem with sticky notes is that I wind up with them on my clothes, on the bottoms of my shoes, on my computer keyboard. I don’t know what I’d do without them, but I’d love to know what to do WITH them!! Scrapbooks are a great idea!

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  4. I’ve always been a huge list maker but I never made a boyfriend list. All I knew was I wanted to marry Paul MacCartney. I married an Englishman named Paul so I came close. I don’t do much list making during my writing but perhaps I should. Great post as always!

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    • Darlene, Love the Paul/Paul story! Probably the most valuable list I write (at least it’s valuable to me) is the “what comes next” list that I use so much when I’m writing first draft. When I’ve had a very successful intensive day writing first draft, I usually have the next points to cover in my head. However, if I can’t write the next day or maybe over a weekend, I love coming back to the manuscript on Monday morning with my bulleted points all made out for me. Then I reread the previous day’s work and continue right on. Easy-peasy.

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  5. Nicole L. Bates

    I’m loving this series. These are great ideas, Sue! I think, at this point, I’m a pretty solid combination of both styles. I usually like to start by just writing and see where the story takes me, but I always reach a point that I need to get my thoughts organized so I start outlining and creating lists. (I LOVE lists!!) Thanks for sharing your tips!

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    • You’re welcome, Nicole. That’s a good summary of the way I write, too, except I do flesh out my characters pretty well before I start writing. Of course, they seem to reveal more and more of themselves as the book goes along and I have to make changes! (I actually love when that happens – most of the time.)

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  6. I enjoy reading about the writing process for others writers. I’m not a list maker,although I occasionally make lists.So far I’m a seat-of-the-pants kind of writer and discover things along the way about my characters. But there’s probably hope for me, and who knows maybe one day I’ll try to be better organized. .:)

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    • I’m generally a seat-of-the-pants writer, too, Laura, except when it comes to my characters, but often as I write 2nd, 3rd, 4th drafts, I jot down something that I need to change or add in a previous chapter. Thus the sticky notes all over the place!

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  7. I love the “Two binders” idea! 😀

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  8. All excellent advice. Maybe I should invest in the ‘Post It’ company. x

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