Character Sketching

Character Sketching

When I started writing Creative Woman Seeking Freelance Work, Stella—my hero and the heroine of my novel—walked into my life unexpectedly and in a bookstore of all places. I was standing in line  at the in-house java bistro when she whispered in my ear.

“I’m Stella Delray.  I have a story.”

“Can I help you, miss?” The woman behind the counter asked me.




“Coffee, no room for cream and thanks.”

I shook myself as if the physical act would wake me from my dream like state long enough to respond with my order without breaking the spell.  I hoped Stella would tell me more. She did not.  She stood there in the cloud watching me. For the next week or so, it was she and I alone in my head. She said nothing.  I was new at writing stories back then and hadn’t quite figured out how I worked.  My writer self didn’t come with an instruction manual.

I knew Stella was unlike the others I had imagined.  She was too important to let slip through my fingers but I hadn’t a clue how to make her talk.

I wrote her name repeatedly waiting for a sign.  None came.



I’d like to say in a flash of brilliance I knew what to do, but in truth, it was only when the first line came to me that I could begin the dialogue with Stella.

My pink telephone is vibrating again.  The highlighter pink phone clashes with the rose-white made to look vintage desk pushed into the corner of my bedroom.  Hanging on the wall directly above the monitor is the watercolor I bought with Bobby when we were in London, it’s called The Blue Door.

Of course, being a virgin novelist I didn’t realize it’s the lines between the first and the last that would cause me to lose sleep, stare at the wall, talk to myself, wake at 3AM, and scribble on the backs of receipts.

Somewhere around page fifty—I wrote those first fifty pages four times and first line about hundred—Stella suggested in a whispered voice:

How can you tell my story if you don’t know anything about me?

She had me there. I hadn’t a clue who she was. Here was another lesson I hadn’t yet learned.  Giving your character’s depth and dimension isn’t as easy naming them and giving them physical attributes.  And they’re all different.  What works with one doesn’t necessarily work for all.

With Stella, it was lines of verse.   I had never written a poem—EVER as in never in my life—and with her I found myself writing lines of verse. And, oh my sweet celestial beings, those first attempts at poetry were horrible, but damn if I could stop myself from writing them down.  It would turn out pushing myself through this process was my road to Stella.  It’s wasn’t just Stella who needed me to learn, but also, Bobby, her dead husband, a singer-songwriter. For him I had to write song lyrics.

Finding the voice of your character isn’t always a straight forward path. As I work on a new WIP and become acquainted with Rosa, my new heroine, I find her revealing herself to me through her connection with cooking.  I wonder what I will learn on this journey.

The first line of Stella’s story (written101 times, at least):

For two years, give or take a week or three, I’ve carried my dead husband’s ashes around with me. He goes where I go. It wasn’t planned, but then these sorts of things never are. Momentary craziness just happens.

Have you ever been surprised by the results when you stepped outside of your comfort zone?  What did you learn?



I’m a writer and hoarder of one-size-fits-all panty hose. Until the hose fits over my bum, I write to provide an alternative view on writing and perfection.

36 thoughts on “Character Sketching

  1. k~

    What a fascinating glimpse behind the character that grabs my attention every time she steps into a room. I enjoyed the uncovering of a process you went through to find Stella’s voice. I’m still getting to know Blake 😉

    • K- I am intrigued to meet Blake. I suspect all writers are intrigued by other writer’s processes. What works for one doesn’t always translate. I know I tried reading books on how to but in the end I found my own way of working. Non writers most likely yawn when they read stuff like this.. BORING, they are thinking.

  2. I loved this glimpse into your process! It’s so interesting to see how different writers work, and it sounds like Stella turned out to be a great character.

    • Emily – I confess I have a school girl crush on Stella. Every writer loves something about their first major project. It’s a lot like a person’s first passionate romance.

  3. Stella! I love her. And let me say your first line rocks! I think your progression as a writer is evident when you compare what you thought would be your first line to what it ended up being. The final version is so much more powerful. Love it!

    • Mistress Kelly, you were one of Stella’s first big supporters. I think you love her as much as I do. Me, too, LOVE IT. I can’t help myself, but I do. I can’t wait to write the sequel but first I am writing Rosa’s and Lucille’s story.

  4. Sandra Tyler

    Great way to discover your characters, intuitively; let them be and they will emerge. Always has worked for me.

  5. How could it be that you haven’t written verse before Stella’s story? :) Your poetic voice is so strong. The 100 times of rewrite have been worth it. Your first line is arresting. As to your question, protagonists whispering a different tune from what we had in mind is perhaps one of the greatest things I’ve received in Writing. Nice surprises. Richer contents. A more honest voice.

    Best of luck with your Rosa. She sounds like a wise teacher, too.

    • Thanks, Claudine. I had never written verse. I still don’t think I do, at least not in the tradition sense. I don’t know the rules, which is why I stick to free verse (no rules). A fellow writer, Adriene suggest I take one style of poetry at a time. Until then it’s free verse for me.

  6. I once heard Isabel Allende (Eva Luna, House of Spirits), one of the most beautiful, lyrical writers out there, describe her writing process. When she said she often threw away the first fifty pages she wrote, I was horrified. The first fifty pages?! But they’re my baby, my Precious! Isabel, don’t you know how hard I worked on those pages?!

    Now, with a little more time and experience under my belt, I “get” it. We often write *towards* where we’re going. It’s not the words themselves we must cling to, but the emotion, the direction.

    You have the gift, Brenda, of beautifully evoking emotion in each blog post, and in your longer works. Somehow, using the same words everyone else does, you draw them out. Love your writing, love you, you passionate pursuer. :-)

    • Brenda, learning about how you develop a character is truly fascinating. I’m feeling like I already know Stella.
      Beverly, I love what you here: “We often write *towards* where we’re going.”
      I’ve been working on writing my memoir and I’ve written AT LEAST 50 pages, maybe more that I’m not planning to use. I keep starting, stopping, tossing and then writing anew. It really is a process!

      • Monica.. As I was looking through my hard drive for the first line to this story so I could to include in the post I was floored by the number of pages I have written and all the drafts. In the end, I finished the book at 460 some pages, but in truth, I wrote those same pages four times… as for certain sections, the numbers are in the thousands. The only advice I was ever given (and you’ve heard this before) and one I take follow, is to write the first draft all the way through without stopping. I did that the first time and now as I am working on my second WIP, I am doing the same. Keep those fingers dancing, woman.

    • Ah, Bev.. I always wonder about my voice. As the writer, I love it, as the writer about on the edge, ready to hit go and begin the journey for the agent search, I do wonder..I can only follow my dream to see where it leads me..

  7. Oh, Brenda, I love how you have described getting to know a character here! Yes, it’s so much more than their physical attributes or what happens to them. It’s knowing, really knowing, what they will say or do in any given situation. I love how Stella first “spoke” to you. I had a similar experience when the idea for my first novel started creeping in and, finally, demanded to be written.
    Excellent post!

    • Thanks much, Martha. We all have ‘our voices’ and likely it’s just one part of our mind talking to the other.. I don’t think there is a scientific way to approach writing. We sit down at a key board or open a journal and start with a word and where we go from there is anybody’s business.

    • Kario – that appears to be how I role. I fought it as first because .. I am not sure why, now I don’t bother. I take it as it comes.

  8. In the south they’d call Stella, “Stellar ;-)” Which means she’s perfect as a character can be! And that opening… how could that NOT grab some real attention and snag the readers from the get-go?

    I met my first character at a spiritual retreat. Her name was Eleanor and she was what they call a “pill.” A happy upper that makes you smile and rejoice naturally. She was humorous, lively, fun, and brought out the storyteller in me. When I left the retreat I brought her home, and for over 5 years took dictation from that mischievous protagonist of my first novel.

    • Debra, she is very much like that and as noted, I hold her in high regard, she is special. For me, I have to like the character to write about or for or on behalf of them.. I haven’t yet tried writing from a character’s voice that I do not like. That would be a stretch for me – but maybe one day. I have written a story from a male POV. That was an interesting process. Did you finish your book?

  9. –Brenda,
    I don’t write fiction, but I read it! All. The. Time.

    I remember reading Annie Lamott.

    She said that she begins writing (assuming she knows her character inside and out ) and quite suddenly the character begins to change, transform, take over the pages…as if coming alive as a separate entity all-together.

    Do you find this happening w/ yours?

    Love love love anything you write, dearest…. xx

    • Kim – this happens ALL THE TIME ( and thanks, you just inspired my next post)..As I was going through the edits on the book the writer in me wanted to change the ending and I did consider it for while but Stella didn’t agree. She wouldn’t let me. Of course, I can do what I want and have power over the key board, but when you’re inside a story and people you created are talking and living out their lives on paper.. the writer can’t really change the course or the character. They take shape inside of you and stand on their own. Being a mom I understand this independence well. You always make me feel good about what I do, Kim. Thanks kindly for your heart.

  10. I have stepped out of my comfort zone so many times I could write a book about it! What one finds are new worlds filled with new experiences, aroma’s, knowledge and people. This is an excellent post and provoked me to think about the characters in my novel beyond their physical attributes.

    • Elizabeth.. I am not surprised you’ve explored the outer zones. Since I am working on a second WIP and knee deep in getting to know my characters, which very much like making a new friend or lover. We circle the perimeter exchanging secrets and slowly building trust. I don’t start with the physical traits, kind of strange I’m sure.

  11. Brenda, by the glimpse you’ve given us, Stella seems feisty! I think it was her determination to have her story written that gave you the push you needed! I like the idea of listening to the voices of our characters; of letting them guide us where we need to go to bring them to life. As for Rosa, something tells me she too will be “famosa”! :)

  12. June O'Hara

    Brenda, I’m fascinated by your process and by character development in general. The waking dream state, the idea of creating “real, live people” from scratch, letting the story unfold with the characters…I’m absolutely intrigued. About writing things over 101 times, I’m right there with you. I’m reminded of a thought that I read: In order to be good, you have to first allow yourself to suck. Hard to do, isn’t it?

    Thanks for a fantastic post.

    • June, you and I write different genres as we have discussed at length. I confess a preference for fiction since there is room to be both creative and frugal with the facts. Also, so much of my writing is taken from an singular idea in real life. Something happens or I witness a moment, or maybe the moment is all about me.. and from there some how in the back of my mind the forces come together … and well, there you have it, a story, a character, a story of moments. Thanks as always.

  13. I thank you also for showing us how Stella was born – or borne unto you!! It’s amazing how a characters or stories are not only created but how they evolve and grow.
    Not to the extent you describe, but I have stood pondering in the shower or at the kitchen counter (i.e. multi-tasking/day dreaming) when an entire piece suddenly takes an entirely different turn. Pisses me off sometimes because I end up deleting something I originally thought was so lyrical, but I’m learning to go with it… trusting it….

    • You my dear, Astra, are not alone. We all do the same thing in our writing. I read once that every time a writer sits down to start a new story (regardless of their writing resume) has the same stage freight. They worry again and again if they can do it. I am living through the same feelings now as I work on my second WIP.

  14. It is fascinating to read about ‘Brenda’s look into sketching Stella….Two separate identities yet similar in some ways..

    • Savira, I do confess there is a piece of me in almost everything I write.. I don’t do it on purpose, but eventually at some point I drip into the prose. You are spot on.

  15. Oh yes, I’m getting quite skilled at it. The older I get, the more fearful I am of becoming an old lady. The best way I know to fight that is to do that which I never thought I would or could…and write about it!

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