Why You Don’t Need to Know Everything About Your Characters (Yet)

TJ Scott Silhouette Photography
TJ Scott Silhouette Photography

I have been creating stories basically my whole life. I say “creating” because, before I really knew how to write down the stories in my head, I did what any other kid my age would do: I made them up by acting them out. Barbies, Beanie Babies, dress-up: I have all these things to thank for getting me through the early years, until I knew enough about language and forming words to start writing those ideas down and saving them for later.

Yet still, after all this time, I’m amazed at how the same brain somehow manages to come up with different stories that are complete opposites of each other, in every way possible.

I have had the idea for my current novel in my head for awhile, and had to wait until this month to begin allowing it to play out on paper, because I was working on finishing up another story. I didn’t realize before embarking on this new literary journey how much I would end up depending on character development and dialogue to move the story along.

My last book was a YA sci-fi/adventure story, which meant it relied heavily on critical events and the surrounding environment as elements to give the story sustenance. I liked that change, because I usually write in the contemporary YA genre and hadn’t had to think quite so much about imaginary places and mechanisms of the future before.

It was a nice change. But it happened, it’s behind me, and honestly, I’m glad to be back writing in a genre I’m more comfortable in. It’s not that I don’t believe writers need to stretch themselves beyond their comfort zones. I just, I guess, write a lot better in the genre I got my start under in the first place.

For some reason, though, I’m having quite a time adjusting to writing such a character-based story again. It takes place in a small town, both the alternating narrators are teenagers and they and everyone they know end up crossing paths with each other at different points as the story moves along. So basically, it’s my life seven years ago, except much more dramatic and none of the characters are based on me or my life (not exactly).

So why is it so hard to adjust? There are a few key events that the story keeps leading up to: a school play being the major one. But while there’s commentary from both narrators throughout and a few hints to some back story here and there, most of it is just talking. Sitting at lunch, talking. At a pizza place or coffee shop, talking. At first this worried me. Is it boring? Is this even exciting enough to keep me entertained? But somehow it is. Because somehow, all these characters have appeared that even I don’t know enough about, and with the conclusion of every scene, I want to know more about them.

Does that mean the reader would, theoretically, feel the same way? And, more importantly, does it mean I’m somehow doing this gradual character development thing right for once?

As much as I’m all for planning and outlining, I don’t really like the idea of detailed character sketches (writing out traits and facts about the characters in your stories). I think it’s important to know their general personality and how they might typically respond to certain events, but I don’t think it’s necessary to know every single detail about them.

I think, if you don’t know your characters as well as you want to, in a way, that’s a good thing. Building a story and creating characters is sort of like building a relationship with people who don’t exist. The longer you spend with them, the further you get into your story, the more they will reveal pieces of themselves to you. You might use all those pieces and you might not. It’s a journey.

I don’t know about you, but I really enjoy learning things about my characters as I go along. It makes me feel more connected, and it’s quite possible that if I can convey that ever-growing connection as I’m writing, my readers will sense that, and feel as though they’re making new friends, too.

Not that I ever expect anyone to read my stories. But it could happen.

Love&hugs, Meg<3

Image courtesy of TJ Scott.

Meg is the managing editor at College Lifestyles magazine, a guest contributor with Lifehack and a guest blogger for Food & Nutrition Magazine. She is a seven-time NaNoWriMo winner and has also written for Teen Ink and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter.

Pros and Cons of Writing Stories Chronologically


When you sit down to write a story, do you start from the beginning and work your way through to the end? Or do you skip around, writing some of the middle, the end and a few lines of the opening scene all in one sitting?

Is there a right or wrong way to construct a story? Really, it depends on your preference and which parts of the story you want to focus on.

While there isn’t necessarily a better way to write—chronologically or completely out of sequence—there are pros and cons to correspond with both sides. We’ve decided to review some of them, and want to give you the chance to tell us how you write and which method works best for you.

Pro: working your way up to the plot points you’re excited about

If you’re a writer who tends to run low on motivation as your stories progress, one way to self-motivate is to hold off on writing the parts of a story you’re most looking forward to until they line up chronologically. Or, in other words, working your way through the prose leading up to your story’s key plot elements.

Con: trudging sloppily through story elements you’re not ready to write

This strategy, however, can lead to unintentional, yet obvious sloppy work. Enthusiastic about certain parts, but much less thrilled about a boring-in-comparison lead-in exchange of dialogue can turn into multiple pages of work that might need to be scrapped and rewritten when the time comes for serious revisions.

Pro: challenging yourself to write the way you read

Sometimes writers need to create their own methods to keep themselves entertained as they work. If you need a good challenge, you can always try writing the way you (hopefully) read—from beginning, to middle, to end, without skipping to the good parts (if you do this when you read, please lie; we don’t want to know. Just kidding). It’s hard. But it could make for an interesting series of blog entries, too.

Con: going off on tangents, unnecessary fluff

If you don’t know where you’re headed, and you’re challenging yourself to keep moving forward anyway, you might end up with a lot of extra words you don’t end up needing when the story’s full outline does come to form. This can be a good way to practice trimming down your own work, but it does make for extra time and, if you’re working on deadline, a lot of stress and frustration.

Pro: more realistic character development

It’s common to develop right along with your characters. As they become more real and human in your mind, of course they’ll come across the same way in your story and to your potential readers. If you write from beginning to end, even without trying, the progress of your characters’ growth will by default appear more realistic. 

Con: forgetting details you added earlier on

This can be as minor as how to spell a character’s name or as major as creating a series of unintentional plot holes. Skipping around, you can write out different pieces of your puzzle at various stages all at once. Writing in ‘chronological order’ story-wise, you might include something in the beginning and forget about it by the time something related comes up later on.

Each pro and con on this list has its accompanying pluses and minuses, but in the grand scheme of literary insanity, there are going to be positives and negatives no matter the method you choose. What really matters is you develop the various skill sets necessary to conceive, write and revise the stories you feel the most connected with.

It’s a process. No matter where in the story you begin, hopefully at some point, you’ll find a place to end, too.

Now it’s your turn. How do you write your stories? Chronologically? The opposite? Do you have pros and/or cons to add to our list? Leave a comment. Tweet @MegDowell with your responses. Let’s agree to disagree. Let’s start a conversation.

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.