Friday, August 22, 2008

Polishing Your Characters by Tamara Leigh

Tamara Leigh

Warning: I am a “seat of the pants” writer. I’ve tried to be otherwise, but this may just be my lot in life.

That said, the following is a look at how I polish my characters prior to submitting a manuscript to my editor.

Further warning: it’s pretty simplistic, as the real work was in developing the character while writing the story.

First, I print out a hard copy. Though some people can edit equally well on paper and computer screen, I catch more problems and inconsistencies on paper.

Next, I pull out my red pen, followed by the all-important character file which contains profiles on every character—major and minor—as they develop. Included are basic descriptions, likes and dislikes, hang ups and habits, and goals.

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to develop profiles for each character and update them as the character grows into who she will become by the end of the story.

The following is what the profile for my heroine from Faking Grace looks like (cleaned up so as not to offend anyone’s sensibilities):

Maizy Grace Stewart: 26 years old; 5’6”; hazel eyes; wild, heavily highlighted hair;

in moments of pure joy, laughter ends on a purr (embarrassing)

“saved” at a Christian summer camp at age 16; hasn’t pursued her faith (Cultural Christian)

general assignment reporter in Seattle before being promoted to investigative reporter (her dream), but flubbed it when she got too close to her subject and was scooped

a softy at heart, giving most people the benefit of a doubt

verbally incontinent under stress (makes her seem ditzy and suspect)

so desperate to get the job at Steeple Side that she embellishes her faith (with the help of “The Dumb Blond’s Guide to Christianity”) and lies

suffers guilt (lies don’t come naturally, so tracks lies to keep her story straight)

when given the chance to return to investigative reporting by investigating Steeple Side, the need to redeem herself, feelings of inadequacy, and dismal financial situation make her vulnerable to peer pressure

as she gets close to her Christian co-workers, she struggles with her conscience and growing faith

quietly chants “There’s always a story” borrowed from her mentor to keep from abandoning the assignment and her dream

in the end, goal shifts from wanting a job to pay the bills to wanting a real faith

Maizy Grace’s profile started out as a couple of lines. As I got to know her, I noted her developing character in the profile and bolded those characteristics that I felt were most important to highlight throughout the story.

Thus, when it was time to polish, I was armed. Pen in hand, I read through the entire manuscript, regularly referring to my profiles to be certain each character was consistent and growth was believable.

For instance, at the beginning of the story, Maizy’s verbal incontinence under stress is evident. In later scenes, I found places where I had neglected to show this, and so I reinforced this characteristic by adding snips of dialogue. A fairly easy fix.

So that’s how I polish my characters for the big meeting with the editor. See, I told you it was simplistic.

Tamara Leigh is the best-selling author of Splitting Harriet, Perfecting Kate and Stealing Adda. Her first seven novels earned awards and became national bestsellers, but Tamara was dissatisfied that the stories were not God-honoring. In 2003, she determined to write books that more directly represented her faith. Tamara and her husband, David, live with their two sons in Tennessee.


  1. Tamara, welcome to Seekerville!! And thanks for your insightful post! I love the description of Maizy's behavior under stress as verbal incontinence!! I have a touch of that myself. LOL

    I need to keep a character file! I used to keep a notebook with sections on characters, setting, plot, etc. but then I wouldn't fill it in. I need to get organized and do this!


  2. Thanks for stopping in to Seekerville, Tamara!! I can see how a character file like this one would help a writer keep on track--so easy to have your hero/heroine or secondary characters "fall out of character" by the end of the book! Which is okay IF you remember to modify in revisions--which the character file would enable you to do if you update it as the characters grows and morphs. This kind of character development documentation is one I like much better than pages of "what's her favorite insect? flavor of jello? color of socks?"

    Aside: Tamara's one of those DREAM contest judges we all love to get! She judged one of my entries in the Orange Rose a few years ago,and not only did she find it "delightful" (!), she offered insightful suggestions for improvement and wrote helpful notes on the manuscript itself.

    I have my order in for "Faking Grace" as it sounds fresh, fun and REAL!

    Enjoy your day in Seekerville, Tamara!

  3. I picked this book up at LifeWay yesterday and am really looking forward to "digging in" - especially after reading this post!

  4. WOW, Tamara, I am TOTALLY impressed with your character notes ... and, uh, more than a little ashamed. I don't do ANYTHING for my characters except write them, so I guess you could say they are a neglected bunch. Heck, I was impressed with myself because I finally got around to doing an age chart in book 3 of my Daughters of Boston series. Thought to myself, what a cool idea keeping track of 12 characters throughout three books spanning 8 years!! Sigh, what a dork. I've obviously still got a lot to learn ... Thanks for a great post!


  5. Okay, that last comment from "AMY" was actually from Julie Lessman, but I have absolutely NO idea why that happened!! Already posted several comments elsewhere as Julie Lessman, and when I came to Seekerville to post, boom -- suddenly I'm Amy. Always liked that name, but still ... Sigh, I am just not smart enough for this business ...

  6. Great post. I'm a sotp writer too and also print out my manuscripts for editing. Thanks for the character thingy. What a great idea.

  7. I am soooo not organized, but yes, I need to keep a character file, too. I think that might be my weakest factor in the novel that's being submitted right now. The characters are consistent, but they don't have specific quirks that would make them more memorable. Hmmmm...

    Well, Tamara, I have to say that I read one of your medievals (right before I saw your name on a Christian chick lit), and I was like, hey, isn't that. . . But I loved your medieval. ;-) I write Christian medievals, but NOOOOOBODY wants those. Hey, why don't you write a couple of Christian medievals ...? It might help me out a LOT! Very Big Grin

    Sorry, just a suggestion. I couldn't resist. ;-) And when you said "desperate for a job at Steeple" I filled in the word "Hill" and thought you were talking about me! Ha!

  8. Hi ladies. Nice cool, muggy morning here in Nebraska. It's starting to be fall instead of summer. Rats.

    I am fairly seat of the pants, too. We've been talking about plotting boards some and I've never heard of such a thing.

    What I do it, at the beginning of the book, page one before the title, I make notes to myself.
    I usually have a page or so of little reminders about characters.
    Ummm examples

    Nick used to be fat, awkward, bullied on school yard, math genius. Is insecure and lives too much inside his head, daydreaming, beating up mentally on himself.

    Abby white blonde hair, sky blue eyes, bad attitude, would rather solve her problems by drawing a knife than talking.

    Wade, shocking green eyes. heavy beard, long hair, cuts hair, shaves at end of chapter four.

    Just stuff like that. A running commentary as I create the characters while I'm writing the book.

    Oh, here I found an interesting one. Girls ages are (insert names and ages) doubled checked for consistancy to chapter five.

    That was me finding out I hadn't set up the girls ages firmly at the beginning of the book. Then I need to go back and make sure I stick to my decision.

    It's a real problem for me remembering to keep track of all this stuff just because I DON'T keep a good file. Shame on me. Do it how Tamara says. Obey her.

  9. Tamara, thanks for the post! Was really helpful. The character files are a must. But I fear I'm not as detailed as I should be on them.

    Thanks for the insight. Have a great day!

  10. Welcome to Seekerville, Tamara! I love to hear how other SOTP-ers handle the writing process. Your system sounds similar to mine. I have a separate Word file that I call my WIP fact sheet, and as I'm writing, I add any pertinent details. Like the name of a restaurant or shop. The MC's description. Street names. Church names. Cousins, aunts, uncles. Characters' ages.

    I also create a calendar in Excel and fill in what happens on each day as I go along. If I know something's going to happen down the road, I enter it in the calendar as a reminder to work toward it as scenes develop.

  11. I just love stopping by here! I'm gauranteed to learn with every visit. *grin* Thanks for all the good, helpful advise--and the encouragement!

  12. Hi all!

    So glad to be here. Thanks for having me. The system I use sounds like Myra's--separate Word files for characters, timelines(assign dates so I always know which month/season I'm in), ideas, and settings. The moment I sit down at my computer to write, I pull up these files along with the current chapter I'm working on so that they're always handy and ready for me to add details or refer to them. One other thing I've also learned is to have separate files for each chapter. I used to group three chapters in one file, but then the "biggy" happened. I don't know how I did it, but I overwrite THREE chapters and had to rewrite nearly the entire file.

    I'll check back later!

  13. Tamara, welcome aboard!

    Nice to have you here and I thoroughly enjoyed your tips. SOTPs tend to need at least a little somethin'-somethin' to keep their characters/plot points/characteristics straight because we do aim and fire from the hip most often.

    Solid ideas, kid. Thank you.

    And I brought something new and delectable today. I see Ann set up a lovely coffee service for us, and Mary and Myra provided flavored sweet teas so we're all set there, but how about an Oreo Whipped Cream layer cake?

    Garnished with, what else?

    Extra Oreos, of course! And drizzled with hot fudge sauce because you can never have too much chocolate, right?

    Help yourselves, ladies. Cyber food is free of calories and outrageously delicious.


  14. Uh oh, I forgot the sweet tea. I am going to pretend to rush to the store now, then pretend to make it and pretend to serve to you nice guests of ours.

    Okay, I'm back. Enjoy the tea.

  15. Actually, I thought I'd crack open the champagne today. I feel like celebrating! Just found out the new SUV we ordered back in May is ready to be picked up!

  16. Thanks for being here in Seekerville, Tamara! I really appreciated your method. I usually work from memory, but it's a great idea to have those characer notes nearby while revising and polishing.

    I also need to be better about updating my notes as the characters grow!

  17. This is an awesome editing plan. BTW your book cover is so delightful!!!

    Thanks for being with us today!

  18. I haven't kept a character file. I picture the "people" in my head. Just like a little movie in my mind.

    But then, maybe I'm a little weird.


  19. Thanks for having me! Have a lovely weekend.

    Oh--regarding those medievals. I know...I first tried to get my medievals into the Christian market, but apparently they don't sell well. So chick lit it is :)

  20. Tamara, I have Splitting Harriet on my TBR pile. Can't wait to meet your characters.

    I'm a planner, although when writing, sometimes my characters will take me down an unplanned road. For example, while cleaning my basement, one of my older characters told me her daughter was adopted. I was stunned by the revelation because that wasn't part of the initial planning, but the new plot direction worked.

    I interview my characters before I begin writing. First, they simmer in my head a while, and then I dig deep to figure them out. Some character studies are almost 20 pages. Some writers may call that overkill, but for me, it works. I'm always surprised by what my characters share with me. 90% of what I learn stays in the file and never makes it to the story, but I hope it helps me to develop three-dimensional characters.

    Thanks for sharing!

  21. Hi Tamara, I'm late as usual, but did enjoy your post so hope you will check back for late comers and read this. What a fun post. I tell from this that your books must be hilarious. Good comedy is tough to write so congrats on that.

    And I really like your ideas for keeping track of character traits. I'm going to try that out. I can get so sidetracked and that really helps you keep them true to character.

    Thanks again and Ruthy the oreo cake is yummy.