The past two weeks have seen me undertake something I'm ashamed to admit I've never really done properly before: sit down and do character sketches of all the major characters in a novel I'm planning to write. Not "write a diary entry about characters," or "ponder a character's background and write down a few thoughts," but "fill out a structured character sketch, from background to conflicts to an overview of what I want/need their character to do in the book."
It's been a humbling and exciting exercise: on the one hand, I'm having to answer all sorts of niggling questions I'm embarrassed not to have thought of beforehand, but on the other I'm having more fun and getting more enthused about my novel The Work than I have about any other project I've worked on, which is saying something...
The prospect of writing a horror novel is what's driven me, finally, to get my characters right. Not that SF or fantasy need good characters less (perish the thought), but to quote Stephen King, "You've got to love the people... that allows horror to be possible." At some level I know that if I fail to allow the readers to get into the characters, then when things begin to go bump in the night and the knives come out it'll fall flat in some measure, and that's death for horror, probably more than any other genre I can call to mind.
So, I've finally completed in-depth sketches for my four main characters. I need to do some brief reshuffling of the plot outline I have (thanks to knowing more about the characters, their motivations and needs than when I first did the outline), and then, probably tonight, I'll finally begin laying down prose.
Can't wait. The plot, as I tweeted the other night, is no longer by any stretch the scariest thing. I'm worried for my characters, now. How awesome is that?
PS. Many thanks, by the way, to the people at literatureandlatte.com for including good project templates in the shipping version of Scrivener for Windows 1.0: there are many, many, many ways to write a character sketch, and one way is probably as good as another, but your inclusion of the sketch template in the Novel blank-project gave me an excellent place to start. Well done.