Chapter by Chapter.

“Before I write down one word, I have to have the character in my mind through and through. I must penetrate into the last wrinkle of his soul.”
~Henrik Ibsen

I stumbled upon this quote recently and have been thinking about it ever since – in relation to the characters I write about, the characters I read about, and the characters fellow writers have crafted so lovingly. I don’t know about y’all, but one of my absolute favorite parts of the writing process (other than, of course, actually drafting) is the initial getting-to-know-you phase. It’s a honeymoon period of sorts, during which we’re so lucky, as writers, to get a glimpse into our characters’ lives. Their personalities, their motivations, their likes and dislikes, their passions, their triumphs, their weaknesses, their soft spots, their beauty, sometimes even their beautiful disasters … these strokes all combine to paint pictures of people we’re beginning to understand as if we’ve been lifelong friends. I still remember the adrenaline pumping through my veins when I first sat down to brainstorm and outline both WITH A LITTLE BIT OF LUCK and REFLECTIONS OF ME. It was a bit different with DEAR ELLIE and again with the manuscript I’m working on now, because most of the cast is comprised of characters who already feel like family, but still, it’s always an amazing, enlightening, inspiring journey to learn even more about the people who fill the pages of my books and the space in my heart. I think that’s one of the most awesome things about writing: we never truly know everything about our characters. There is always more to uncover. And in much the same way, their stories never unfold quite as we’ve planned. I outline loosely – a general sense of beginning/middle/end and some major turning points along the way, but inevitably, my characters end up taking their own paths. They tell their own stories. They teach me things I never knew. Sometimes I get to channel my thoughts and emotions into them; sometimes they get to channel theirs into me.

I am nine chapters and one epilogue away from finishing the first draft of this manuscript, which also happens to be the final one I’m writing about Sofie’s journey (SO MANY TEARS AND FEELINGS just at the thought of tying this story up for good, but that’s a post for another day). It has been a joy and a privilege to watch her life twist and turn, bend and blossom. Writing these three novels has been, hands down, one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. And when I look back to where Sofie was on the first page of REFLECTIONS OF ME, when I think of how far she’s come, how much she’s endured, how strong she’s become, how hopeful her future is, and how bright a star the whole cast will be reaching for, will be holding in the palms of their hands … it is both crazy and awesome. I am so proud of my book-babies and so indescribably happy for them. They’ve survived a lot. They’ve learned a lot. They’ve accomplished a lot. They’ve taught me a lot, too. Know what? I’ll be forever grateful for that.

I read a blog post once – not sure where, or even which agent, editor, or author penned it – that said something to the effect of this: your main character should finish each chapter in a different place than he or she began. In today’s world of so many blogs, and so much advice, and so overwhelming an amount of information, that idea has stayed with me always. It’s something I actively consider while writing. Has Sofie changed at all over the course of these past ten pages? What has she realized? What has she achieved? Why have her feelings evolved? How have her feelings evolved? When did she go from Point A to Point B, and are the other characters going on the journey alongside her? Or will it take them longer to get there? Obviously that’s the point of every novel as a whole – for the characters to grow, to bloom, to better their lives … and I think it’s so neat to imagine each single chapter as a microcosm for that. Sure, some chapters will see more change than others. We all have ebbs and flows to our lives, and our characters are no different. But still, it is truly an awesome thing to see these people make progress one step at a time. Sometimes it’s a step forward and sometimes backward. Always, it’s an important part of who they are. And, I think, also an important part of who we are as writers, and as people, too.

How about you? Do you plan out every nuance of your characters ahead of time, or do you let them lead the way? Do you believe that each chapter should end in a different place than it started?

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6 thoughts on “Chapter by Chapter.

  1. Shari, I love this post so much! First, because of all the warm fuzzy feelings you’re putting out there about your writing. That kind of passion inspires me as a reader and makes me want to pick up your books RIGHT NOW. I feel like your characters are the luckiest people in the world to have a friend like you telling their story.

    Second, I love how you compare the character’s journey to our own. It’s true, each chapter leaves us in a different place, sometimes forward, sometimes backward.

    Side note: the detailed explanation I’ve heard of that rule is that “different place” can be interpreted in a few different ways. The character could be in a different place literally, having moved from one location to another; the character could be in a different place emotionally, having gone from light to serious, or vice versa; or the character could be in a different place story-wise, moving from set up to rising action, or whatever. I try to keep that rule and its different meanings in mind when I determine where my chapters start and end, and I also try to think of each chapter as a mini-story. Sometimes they have cliffhangers though. ;)

    • Oh, you are so sweet! I can’t tell you how much this comment made my day. Thank you for all the kind words. My characters would be the luckiest people in the world to have you read about them … truly, it means the world that you’d be interested.

      It’s funny: I’ve read countless blog posts or articles where authors will compare their writing journey to the ones their characters take, and I’ve certainly felt that in ways before, but it wasn’t really until this MS that I fully got it. When our characters grow, so do we. When they move forward and backward, so do we … but no matter what, each step is an important one.

      I LOVE the idea of thinking of each chapter as a mini-story. It’s such a perfect way of describing it – and, I think, such great criteria for when we go back and edit. Does each chapter have all the elements it needs? Does each take the character somewhere different and yet still leave room for another journey? And – cliffhangers are the best, ha! – does it make the reader want more?

  2. Okay, first of all, I LOVE that quote! It’s SO true and probably speaks to every writer of fiction out there. Must look Mr. Isben up :) I’m totally a pantser so I’d say that I allow my characters to fly by the seat of their pants. There is a joy (and part frustration) during edits to get to know them again while figuring out the “why” they did certain things. Writing my first book was so much easier than working on the second. Turning off my inner-critique is proving to be challenging. But that’s great advice. I shall consider it as I go forward with my writing: end each chapter in a different place…awesome. Thanks :)

    • Isn’t it great? I always have such fun looking up quotes for my posts, and this one jumped out immediately. I think it’s something we can all relate to in one way or another. Ah, and it’s so fun to let the characters lead the story like that! It can definitely make editing a challenge, but in ways, it’s also a chance to understand/get to know the characters all over again … and how lucky are we to have the opportunity for it? :) That said – oh boy, do I know what you mean about turning off the internal editor. It is IMPOSSIBLE sometimes! :P

  3. SO cool that you’re getting so close to the end of the book! Wow! And soon you will be able to get to know new characters, which is FUN. You’ll have a blast with it.

    Oh, and you’d be proud of me. I plotted out my WIP so carefully. I’m now almost halfway through (CANNOT believe that, by the way!!) and, um, I’m not following my outline. Though I’m still working toward my planned ending.

    • It’s definitely bittersweet. I’m going to miss these characters SO MUCH, but at the same time, I’m looking forward to meeting new ones. The beginnings of their stories are already floating around my thoughts and I’m excited to learn more about them.

      Oh my gosh, SO PROUD of you!! Yay for letting the characters lead! It sounds like you have the perfection combination – a planned ending and decision about where your characters will end up, while still allowing them the freedom to get there in their own way. You must be having such a great time writing! :)

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