The Writing Process 2015: The Secret Lives of Characters

Secret Lives of CharactersIf you’re new to The Writing Process 2015, these posts are a chance to share my journey through my latest novel, starting right at ground zero.

So now you know the title of the novel I’m working on. When We Were Sisters. And yes, I’m happy with it. But the title subtly changed my ideas for the novel, as titles always do. When I originally conceived the story as Life After Love, the basics were the same, but the relationship between one of the two female characters, Robin, and her husband Kris, seemed most important. Now the title makes it clear that the story between the two women is every bit, if not more, important.

This is a perfect example of why I always need my title up front. For me–and not necessarily for every other author–title becomes a catalyst.

So the proposal’s been accepted. I now have a title. I’ve done some significant research, and I do more every day. (Ask me about the history of the two St. Wenceslas churches in Cleveland, OH, an extremely minor point that nevertheless fascinated me this week.)

Before I can move on, though, I need so much more. I know the arc of the story, and the most dramatic moments. I have settled on settings. I know a little about my character’s professions.

What I don’t know is enough about who they are inside and out.

This week and last I began to delve into the secret lives of characters. When I first started my writing career I created a social history, much as I might have when I worked in a mental health center, my first career. Later I began to write the history as a biography. Later still I realized what I really needed was to hear my character’s voice, how he or she expressed feelings, unusual ways she or he might speak. So I began to write autobiographies instead. These days my characters speak for themselves. They tell me all the little things I didn’t know, in their own words, and as they speak I learn what really matters to them and why.

I began with Robin, because in my heart she’s the most pivotal character. I knew how she would react in certain situations, but I didn’t know why. So I started right at the beginning.

“Cecilia was the first to call me Robin. The day we met I was ten and wearing a red hand-me-down sweater. She insisted that with my pale brown hair and red breast I looked just like one.

Forty-five pages later, I brought Robin’s life up to the beginning of the novel.

“Cecilia was calling, and when I exploded she listened and reminded me I had options. Of course she was right, always the big sister helping me solve the problems of my life.”

Forty-five pages you will never see–at least not most of it. But you will find everything I learned threaded throughout the novel.

As I worked on this I told myself I was obsessing, that I would never need this detail or that, but, of course, I will. Because this is the panorama of Robin’s life. The reasons she acts the way she does, her fears and joys, the moments that made her the woman she is. Along the way I decided where she grew up, who took care of her, how she did in school. Does it matter? Absolutely. Because much of this novel is about the past, and why not figure out those details and moments now so that when I begin to write I won’t have to stop and figure them out? I know the names of her family members, the parts of school she loved and those she didn’t, the way she coped with the difficult moments in her past. Best of all I know how she met both Cecilia and Kris, and why she loves them both.

I’m working on Kris’s autobiography now. It will be somewhat shorter since lots of his story and Robin’s is the same, although his feelings about it won’t be. Then I’ll start on Cecilia’s autobiography. I have no idea how long that one will take. Cecilia? Well, she’s a woman with a lot to say.

Am I wasting my time? I don’t think so, but in June of 2016, you will be able to judge.


  1. Marsha Markham on March 24, 2015 at 10:56 am

    Good Morning…What an intersting post. I have old friend who is a new author who I thought would enjoy reading about your process of writing so I forwarded your words to him.

    Do I think you are wasting your time? Absolutely not! That’s why your books are good ones on so many levels, Emilie. I know some authors crank books out several a year but they do not have the depth of your novels. Don’t change but also take time to enjoy life too. I think you balance things pretty well.

    Love ya…Marsha

    I hope I rememembered to thank you for the bookmarks. My friends were glad to get them and I treasure mine…everyone was impressed that you had signed them. 🙂

    • Emilie Richards on March 24, 2015 at 11:29 am

      I’m so glad you enjoyed getting and sharing the bookmarks. And I’m glad you’re enjoying these posts. I do like reporting on the process, sort of an online reminder and challenge to myself. It helps me think through the way I write and see if I want to make changes, too.

  2. Martha O'Quinn on March 24, 2015 at 11:13 am

    Good morning Emilie. Emilie and wasting my time do not even belong together in a sentence! Because I live in the area in which the Goddess series took place I can vouch for the accuracy of your research and how it enriches your stories. And I can only imagine how exhausting that must be.

    Again, thank you for the autographed bookmarks. In three days they will be in the hands of the members of my book club.

    • Emilie Richards on March 24, 2015 at 11:31 am

      Now that’s high praise, Martha. We always worry that no matter how hard we work and research, we’ll still make a mistake. I’ve made a few doozies, like putting Easter four days after Ash Wednesday. And me, a minister’s wife, who apparently gave up her good sense for Lent that year.

      • Martha on March 24, 2015 at 11:41 am

        I think there is some reference to the “on purpose” faux pas that true artists sneak into their work. Landscape, portrait artists; seamstresses; quilters – I know you are a quilter and I believe that may be an Amish tradition – correct me if I am wrong. I would put the Easter/Ash Wednesday oops in that category and pretend you did it on purpose.

        • Emilie Richards on March 24, 2015 at 3:20 pm

          Like the way you think. Of course that’s all it was. BTW, a reader pointed this out. Neither my editor or copy editor caught it. A funny and kind reader had to point it out.

  3. wendy on March 24, 2015 at 12:54 pm

    Thank you for sharing the “inside story.” I had no idea you researched fiction so well. And I just love how you create your characters – with such depth!

    I guess I just lap up your books, enjoy the read, love and laugh with your characters (and cry too), but never did I think that you would really make them come alive with biographies, etc.

    Anyway – just happy that you’ve shared all this with us.

    • Emilie Richards on March 24, 2015 at 3:21 pm

      I’m so glad you’re reading along, Wendy. And I’m delighted you like my characters.

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