Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Character Relationships

Although my publications are all non-fiction, I have written six novels, five of them for NaNoWriMo. I've never got around to publishing them, and with the exception of the first one, I haven't even edited them.

Although I do a lot of background preparation, and have a plan where the story is going, once I write, I let my characters take the story and run with it. I love the way they become real and often change my ideas of what was to happen next.

However, before starting to write, I work through a series of character exercises so that I know them pretty well. I adapted these from one I learned years ago from a writer called Phil. I think his surname was Rockwell but I can't find him on Google.
  1. Draw up a graph (I use Excel) with all your character names down the side, one per row.
  2. Repeat all the characters in the same order, across the top, as column headings. 
  3. Fill in every space with just a very few words, summing up the person on the left's attitude towards the one in the column.
Here is an example using four of my characters from my first novel.
  • Marcia Douglas, the protagonist, is a minister's wife.   
  • Owen is her husband.
  • Mrs C (Cartwright) is the old lady who lives across the road.
  • Holly is the Douglas's teenage daughter.
You can learn more about them by reading the chart.

Notice that you also fill in the characters' feelings about themselves. I initially battled with this, but then realised how important it was. It helps you figure out how the person actually sees themselves in light of the story.

So you see that Marcia is unsure of herself, fears her husband's rejection, resents Mrs C across the road for her interfering, and is exasperated and worried by her out-of-control teenage daughter.

After doing this, I draw up a Word page for each character, with three main columns. I put the name of the character all the way down the left side of the page, and the names of all the other characters down the right. I then repeat the list but with the characters on opposite sides of the page. The centre column is an expansion of what I had in the first exercise.

So here is what it looks like, using four of my characters from the same novel. (I've added a new character to the mix and dropped Holly.)

Got the idea?

Once I have done all this, I write a short history for each character, so that I have a better idea of why they are like they are. As I write, I often find they reveal bits of their lives that I didn't know about. (After all, I'm only the author.)

Give it a try - and have fun!

OVER TO YOU: Having read about some of the characters of this novel, working title, Hidden Agenda, do you think this would be a story worth reading? Which character introduced so far most grabs your attention?

SHIRLEY CORDER lives a short walk from the seaside in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, with her husband Rob. She is author of Strength Renewed: Meditations for your Journey through Breast Cancer. Shirley is also contributing author to ten other books and has published hundreds of devotions and articles internationally. 

Visit Shirley on her website to inspire and encourage writers, or on Rise and Soar, her website for encouraging those on the cancer journey. Follow her on Twitter or "like" her Author's page on Facebook. 


  1. Shirley, interesting idea. I've given my characters personality tests, written fragments/stories about them, but filling in a matrix like that is beyond me -- I don't know that stuff about them going in, and I get to know them as I talk to/write about them, in the same way I would any acquaintance (except that they're pretty much obliged to answer me).

    What might work for me, though, would be to write a scene with the two characters -- assuming they ARE going to meet...


  2. Thanks for your comments Margaret. I find this a great way to get to know the characters. I sit back and figure out how they would interact, whether or not they will actually meet. It gives me insight into their background. I like your idea of giving them personality tests thought. Same idea!

  3. This is great Shirley! I am going to borrow your method.

  4. What a great idea Shirley. I love the way you connect the characters in the matrix. And a short story on each - brilliant.

  5. shirl, in my novel I used real people. Even then a list like this is important to track little things like mannerisms. BTW, a timeline is a good idea, too. You can't imagine how many novels I edit where the timeline is inadvertently screwed up! (-:

    Carolyn Howard-Johnson
    Excited about how much the new edition of the Frugal Book Promoter (expanded! updated!) can help writers with the tried and true and the new media, too. Now a USA Book News award-winner in its own right (www.budurl.com/FrugalBkPromo) it the original edition was also a Reader Views winner and an Irwin Award winner.

  6. Great character sketch idea! A good way to keep track of everything. Thanks for sharing this!

  7. Great ideas here, Shirl!

    Hidden Agenda sounds like it would be a great and interesting read.

    The characters all sound like they have an interesting story to tell, but Mrs Cartwright grabs my attention the most - especially in light of how Ross Young feels about her.

  8. Great way to get to know characters. Thanks for sharing with us - E :)

    Elysabeth Eldering
    Author of Finally Home, a middle grade/YA paranormal mystery

  9. Thanks for sharing these worksheets Shirl, they are a valuable addition to any writer's toolbox.

    I would love to read Hidden Agenda, it most definitely sounds like a story worth reading. I agree with Marion that Mrs Cartwright grabs my attention the most.

  10. Shirl, great detailed information on character building. I usually let the characters create themselves, but your strategy sounds like a very useful idea.

  11. It's great to find a new tool to navigate the project of story creation! Thank you for sharing, I can't wait to try it out.

    Hidden Agenda looks like it will be interesting, I can already see tensions building up and foresee clashes between Marcia and Owen, Mrs Cartwright and Holly, and/or Owen and Ross. Conflict is the engine of stories, and I'm sure you're building up to a big one ;-)


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