Blog #4: Character Vignettes

An exercise in Writers’ HQ‘s ‘Making People’ course asks you to write about 5-10 significant moments in your character’s life as little vignettes. Something like 300-500 words maximum. I didn’t realise until I started doing it just how significant this is and how incredibly useful.

As someone who has far too many a lot of central characters, it can sometimes be a little daunting trying to make them as well rounded as they need to be. It’s tempting to just be like “well this is my ‘main’ character so she’s the one I should focus on and the rest will just come together as I go” but that method of writing was partly why my first draft fell apart so much half way through. I didn’t know enough about my cast to keep propelling the story forward.

I decided to lay out 6 moments for each of my main characters, detailing something significant from their past. Some are very much just one moment in time – one interaction or one event – while others stem from one incident and demonstrate how that has a knock on event further down the line.

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So far, this exercise has been a godsend for the following reasons:

  • Creating a well-rounded character. Do you need to reference any of these tales in the narrative? Probably not. But they will still help to inform your plot in various ways. It will help you to get a better idea of how your character may react to other people or what they may do in certain situations.
  • Dealing with exposition. One thing that always ends up happening in a first draft is info dumping. As Terry Pratchett once said: “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” You need to throw all that information out there, even with the knowledge that it can’t stay (because lazy exposition is never fun to read). Writing these vignettes helps to lessen the amount of exposition you may have in a first draft. The compulsion to explain why every character reacts the way they do or why they say certain things is lessened by the fact that you have already explained it to yourself. It allows you to tell the reader in subtler ways pieces of your character’s backstory.
  • World-building. If you write it as stream-of-conscious (which I would recommend), you may well find that certain elements of the environment spring forth as you go. As part of one vignette I was writing, I suddenly realised something significant about one of my locations which in turn changed some minor plot elements. It’s not necessarily relevant to the reader but, as a writer, it feels good to get a better handle on your world.
  • Motivations. One thing I’ve always struggled with when it comes to character creation is really getting a handle on their motivation. What sets them on this journey? Why do they keep going? This is an excellent way of picking up patterns in a characters life and recognising what influences them. I noticed a recurring theme in my main characters stories was ‘you don’t belong here’. The sentence cropped up in 3 of the 6 vignettes. And for my villain, it was the phrase ‘something told him’. It’s fascinating to see these patterns unfold and provides a good foundation to build a full character. Remember: no character considers themselves a supporting role. They are all the main character in their own story so it’s up to us, the writers, to do them justice!

Here’s an example of one of my vignettes, ‘Orion Unleashed’ for my antagonist, Steven:

The thing Steven hated the most about being a Realm sorcerer was the meetings. It was a far more bureaucratic role than he would have expected and it made no sense to him that he should attend at such a young age when he had no input to give.

When his father died just after his eighth birthday, he thought perhaps his peers may have a word of comfort for him at least. They didn’t even acknowledge it. The temptation to remain quiet was strong but something told him to speak up, make himself known.

“My father died yesterday.”

The chamber fell silent at his words, the four sorcerers turning towards him tucked in the corner as usual.

“We had heard,” Carina said. “We are sorry. He was a good man.”

Steven’s expression grew stony. They knew but decided he wasn’t worthy of a kind word. He knew they resented him, that they felt he didn’t belong in their fold. Usually he ignored it but all of a sudden, all he wanted was to make his presence known. Striding forward with the confidence of someone much older, he took his place at the round table, standing between Carina and Puppis. He barely came up to their hips.

Vela, who now stood opposite him, began chuckling to themself. “Vela…” Carina warned but they just waved her off, uncaring.

“Would you like a stool to stand on, boy? So that you may at least see the table?” Steven glowered at them, making them laugh even harder. “A child trying to play with the grown ups, that’s all you are. You shouldn’t be here. You’re a loophole no one saw fit to close, we don’t need you here. We don’t want you here.”

“Vela.” This time it was Pyxis with the more demanding suggestion for their silence. This too was ignored.

“Your father’s life would have lasted longer had he not burdened himself with raising you-“

“Vela!” Carina bellowed the same time as Steven snapped.

“Shut up, shut up, shut UP!”

Vela’s cruel laughter stopped in an instant, dropping the room into shocked silence. They reached up to their mouth, desperately clawing at the stitches criss-crossed over their lips. Eyes wide with panic, they looked to the other sorcerers for help all they could offer was a mirrored expression of alarm.

Carina turned to Steven who was shaking, eyes like saucers. “Steven…” she said, caution lacing her tone.

“Stop!” he yelled, flinching away from her touch, watching as everyone appeared to freeze, rooted in place. Taking a shaky breath, he stood as tall as he could manage, fixing Vela with a steely glare. “My name is Orion. And I am just as good and worthy as any of you. Remember this.”

Without waiting for any kind of response, he disappeared from the room, returning to his physical body back in the palace. Swaying as he stood, he managed to make it to the basin before throwing up and passing out on the cold marble floor.

It’s not pristine, it doesn’t have much finesse at all but that’s not the point. It helped me get a better idea of how he was treated and his relationship with other characters. Do they interact in the actual narrative? I don’t know for sure yet but I don’t think so. Does it matter? No, because it still helps to flesh out the character in various other ways. After each vignette, I do a small paragraph in brackets summing up what I learned from the piece, providing me with little annotations to harken back to in the future.

So, I would greatly recommend this exercise as part of your character creation AND world-building, especially if you’re like me and have a ton of characters that are at risk of becoming just one amorphous blob of a personality. (I would also greatly recommend Writers’ HQ for more excellent exercises and courses and enthusiastic support!)

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