Who The Hell Are These People? Mind-Mapping Your Story’s Characters
That’s either an image of me lecturing you, or me trying to zap you with evil invisible fingernail fungus rays. You decide! It’s like Choose Your Own Adventure for miscreants and deviants!
So. Blah blah blah, I’m writing a novel and you’re all along for the ride, and first thing’s first is that I want to get my so-called “mise-en-place” in order before I actually commit fingers to keyboard.
For me, the first order of business is getting the characters together.
While this is a novel that will have a lot of moving parts and fiddly bits (and thus some attention must be given to outlining a plot), for me the most significant bit of plotting and scheming is around the characters. The characters are my way into the story, and — a-durrr — they’re going to be your way into the story as well. I’ve said before that building a story is like building a house, and you need a strong foundation on which to construct. Characters, in this case, trump “plot.” You can have an interesting plot and shitty characters, and really, who cares? I’ve read books with awesome characters and questionable plots, though, and they can still keep my attention. I’d read awesome characters playing backgammon for 300 pages.
So, that’s where we begin. The characters.
Names Have Secret Power
Just like I suck at giving my projects good titles, I often suck at giving them good names. I don’t know why that is. It’s just one of those sad facts of life. “Maybe he should be called… Johnny… Sm… Smith? And his buddy is… Juh… Johnson… Suhhh? Smythe? Johnny Smith and Johnson Smythe? That’s good, right? It’s not good. Oh, god, it’s not good.” Weep, gibber, mouth around the lemniscate barrel of an over-under shotgun, paint walls with brains as my final “message” to the world.
I like having strong, compelling names for the characters though, because if a character has a wrong-feeling name, silly as it sounds it’ll gum me up. It’s like being forced to work all day in a pair of ill-fitting shoes. I know that something feels off, and it’s hard to fire on all cylinders when thing are wobbly and off-kilter.
So, first task was naming these people.
I’ve had this novel in mind for a year or so, and the cast of characters blurs and shifts, but even the constants have remained forever without good names.
And then the names all fell in place.
The names fell in place because I found a source of good names. A source in the world around me. You may not need this, because you may be good with titles and names. Me, I have to mine nuggets from my environment, which most certainly can include the Internet. Baby name websites are a good place to go when you’re trying to figure out what the fook you should name a character.
Anyway. I got the names of the known characters.
That’s not to say I won’t come up with new characters that need new names. I will. This is just me just identifying the primary cast, the known quantities. But, when those secondary players pop up either in outline or in writing, I can go back to the source of names used previously.
It felt good to get the names down, because now I feel like these characters are real. I feel like I’m walking around in comfortable shoes. I feel like it’s time to progress.
Flowcharts Are Fucking Awesome
And so I moved onto the mind-map, which is just an awesomer way of saying “flowchart.”
I don’t necessarily like to work in a word processor for this type of thing, because a word processor (or even a blank notebook page) indicates unending possibility. I don’t want that. I don’t want to go on at length about these characters. Not yet. I just want to identify them, I want to get a feel for who they are, I want to see how they loosely connect to the story. If you let me write and write and write, I’ll write a book for each. I don’t want a character bible yet. I want lean and mean. Plug-and-play — little LEGO bricks to build up and dismantle easily. The more information I write about a character, the more that feels “set in stone.” And the harder it is to go dismantle that. Sounds silly, and some of this is psychological, but it’s in part practical, too. I write 1000 words and it’s a wall-of-text. I want to pull a bit out and change it, I’ve got to sort through the noise to find the signal.
A mind-map doesn’t let you get too crazy. You work in little text bubbles — bloop, bloop, bloop — and get a lot of information down quickly. Don’t like a text bubble? Cut it with the push of a button. Prune the tree. You aren’t forced to write it in a sensible prose narrative, and you aren’t married to sticking to one axis of information. You can mind-map anything. A physical characteristic. A tic or behavior. A theme. A line of dialogue. A friend or family member. How they connect to the protag? How they die, how they come into play, how they like their goddamn oatmeal in the morning.
I won’t show you the one I did for this book (since I’m choosing to keep this under wraps), but I will show you one I mocked up (click the image to see it embiggened):
Few things I really like about the mind-mapping technique (in addition to what I noted above):
First, it’s fun as shit. It’s a goofy visual way of getting information together. It’s easy to follow, easy to look at, and fun to make. Colors! Bubbles! Tee-hee! Gigglesnort!
Second, I can make one and edit one anywhere, because I did this on my iPhone using the SimpleMind app. You aren’t beholden to that app, of course. You’re not even beholden to any app. You could accomplish this with a big sheet of paper and some fun markers. Especially if the markers smell awesome. Like chocolate and blue raspberry. Just don’t smell that black marker. They call it “licorice,” but the black marker always smells like sun-loosened road tar rubbed in a dead man’s asscrack. Nastiness.
Third, they’re easy enough to create and edit on the fly that it functions as both an “arrangement of information” and a “Zen exercise of exploring character.” Sometimes the blank page of the word processor or notebook is daunting, but for me, the mind-map flowchart thingy lets me quick tippity-type whatever elements come to the front of my head. “Obsessed with cheese.” “Rides a flying donkey.” “Afraid of his evil mother.” Whatever.
The mind-map comprises only broad-strokes, and it doesn’t get into the deeper “character stuff,” but we’ll get there. More on that as I have it. The process continues.
First I make the map, then I take the journey.
[EDIT: From the comments:]
Funny, because I totally forgot one of the greatest things that happened during this particular mind-map process, and I even intimated such a thing in my faux mind-map.
I was going through the characters, and I started to see some similar elements pop up: elements of legacy, of family, of blood. And I was like, holy shit, I just figured out what this whole story’s *about.* I mean, I had the story in mind. I know a rough sequence of events for the plot. But I didn’t really have a deeper throughline.
And in the mind-map, the character’s exposed themselves (tee-hee) and showed me the theme of the piece.
Just through the act of dicking around with fun little word bubbles and connective tissue, I suddenly stumbled upon one of my great unanswered questions, a question I didn’t think I’d answer so soon.
That’s the joy of the preparation process. It’s like preliminary archaeology. You dig and dig and uncover things you never expected to find.