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User Submission: Writing Well Part Two

Started by Rob, March 26, 2010, 03:28:08 AM

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Today's tutorial post was submitted by Gibson Twist, creator of Pictures of You. You can check out more of his work at Sinister Squid. Where this article and successive entries were originally published. Part one of this series can be found here.

The following is the second in a series of six tutorials designed to help novice writers build a better story.

Jinkies, Scoob, it's time for everyone's favourite part of writing! Today we get to work on Character Profiles, right? Well, yes, but let's slow down a bit. Character Profiles are indeed an important step in the writing process, but too often new writers underestimate what is involved in doing this properly, and
even more tend to overlook that characterization is but one part of building their story's Tableau.

The term may be a little mystifying and it may sound a touch hoity, but it's appropriate to describe the next area of story development that I want to discuss. A story's Tableau is, put simply, the elements which provide a story's scenar...Setting, Characters, Backstory and Climate...not only the people involved in the story or where it takes place, but everything else that makes the story breathe. If we take an in-depth look at the story's players and examine their surroundings, you can bring your story to life in ways that a compelling story alone cannot do.

Creating a solid Tableau is not always about making your world believable, though. Your characters and settings can be outrageously unrealistic and still be solid and full, as long as they make sense to the story (see Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy). To the other end, your characters and environment don't always have to be full and rich if it suits your story better that they be simplistic (see Waiting For Godot). The point is to know how the story elements will serve the and propel the overall story. For the purposes of this tutorial, though, we're going to assume that the story requires a realistic, fully realized Tableau.


Where does your story take place? It's a simple question, usually with a simple answer, and it's fairly self-explanatory, but let's take a moment to examine the finer points. When thinking of Setting, you will imagine a city or town, possibly even the neighbourhood or even a single building, the more specific the better. If your Setting is fictional, like Middle Earth or Dagobah, then specificity is even more important because you'll be painting a world people don't already know. Even if your Setting is well known, such as Manhattan or London, it's important to take the time to describe it, even loosely. When you look closer at a neighbourhood or a specific street, be sure to know what's there...a drug store, a park, an antiques store with apartments over top. You don't need to know every brick, but what kind of neighbourhood it is. Can you get pad thai at 3am? Is there likely to be a mailbox on the corner? If your story requires someone to buy a bag of nails, be sure to know how far they have to go to get it.

Once you get down to individual buildings or rooms, the level of your description should be high. Describe the walls, the floor, what's on the walls, what furniture is there, what is sitting on the furniture, what colour is the paint, is there a flowery or a musty smell? Is it quiet or can you hear the cars outside? There is no detail too small to may not have to describe it in your story, but knowing it in your head will help you bring it out on the page.

Be mindful of how your Setting adds or detracts from the effectiveness of your story. A whimsical farce may not be appropriate in a concentration camp, and scifi doesn't always work on a tropical beach. This doesn't mean you have to tailor your setting to the story, but it should always work for you, not against you. If you think your political drama is best set in a kindergarten, then set it there. If you think your high school drama isn't going to play well in a pizza joint, find somewhere else. No Setting is off limits as long as it adds to the story.

And there are other less tangible qualities such as weather, seasons or time of day. A rainy autumn night sets a much different scene than a sunny summer afternoon. Don't, however, make the mistake of thinking that these things define what sort of scenes can take place (people don't only hear about the death of a loved one in the rain) but know the power that the right kind of conditions can deliver (break-ups are always hardest on a cold winter morning).

Finally, Setting is not only where, but when. Modern day, Middle Ages, 1000 years in the future, whenever your story takes place will have an impact. Don't be afraid to play around with the time (how many Robin Hood stories have been set in alternate times?), as long as it moves the story forward and isn't just done for the sake of quirk.


Many times, a writer will have an idea about his or her characters even before having a clear idea of their premise, and most have a lot of fun designing them. Character Profiles are very popular, especially in amateur comics, and while I have nothing bad to say about this practise, I have to emphasize that a character's fullness is difficult to express in point form. Height, weight, eye colour, age...these are important things, but they are only peripheral in making a character what they need to be. Characters should be made of more than an at-a-glance checklist of attributes, there is a litany of elements and facets that go into making someone who they are and defining why they do what they do, and while your readers don't always have to know every detail, the author should.

  • Physical Appearance - This is where you would list all the regular things like hair and eye colour, height and weight, etc., but there are other things to consider too, such as facial features (shape of nose, lips, eyes, eyebrows, cheeks, chin, forehead...all of it), body type/shape (are they athletic? Overweight? Lanky? Stocky?), and of course hairstyle. Also, when you describe their clothing, focus more on what kind of clothes they would wear instead of individual items (punk, goth, hipster, normal, etc) unless it's something they wear all the time like jewelry, a hat or jacket. Even if you're going to be illustrating the comic yourself, it's a good idea to list their physical features well enough that someone else can draw them based on the written description.

  • Demeanour - Now you're getting into the meat of who the character is. What kind of attitude does the character have? Are they friendly or mean or shy? What do they act like when they're angry or scared? Is this person the life of the party who secretly wants to be left alone? Are they the miserly curmudgeon who is too afraid to ask for a hug? Do they act differently when they're around one group of people than they do with another? Demeanour is the way your character behaves and is probably the most important part of characterization to get right, and once you do, your characters almost write themselves.

  • Speech Pattern - If Demeanour is number one on your list of things to get right, how they speak is easily second, yet the most overlooked. Are they plain-spoken or is their language more flowery? Do they articulate or do they rush through their words? Do they ramble on or are they brief? Do they swear a lot or stammer? The pattern of how someone speaks is intrinsic to the person they are and is as much as anything a signature element.


Backstory, the events that not only lead to but also support the beginning of your story, is present in both your Setting and Characters. Perhaps your cop character was once in the military, or maybe the Human Resources Rep was once in the seminary. Has your protagonist killed anyone? Ever been married? Not completed high school? These all add to a richer character. Conversely, was the run-down neighbourhood where your characters live once a more affluent area? Maybe your shoe store was the first to employ African Americans, or is rumoured to be haunted, or won a Best Shoe Store award three years running. Knowing more about the people and places you're writing about adds depth and makes the reader more interested, or at the very least makes it easier for you to write about it.

In fictional Settings, you will need to know at least the basics about the history of your world. Not everyone has to be as exacting as Tolkein, but what happens in the past affects the present and should be addressed. This becomes less important in real-world Settings, but is still worth considering.
Backstory is very important in creating your Characters as well. When considering who a person is, you have to remember that we are all made up of our past experiences and how we react to them. If you have a very quiet character, it's important to know why. If your character never shuts up or doesn't make eye contact or runs everywhere they go, there is a reason for it. This applies also to why your characters will do the things they do in your story, and the choices they make. Even if your characters' pasts are never revealed in your story, it will help you immeasurably to know at least the surface details of how they grew up and came to be who and where they are and why they do what they do.


Rather than weather conditions, Climate deals with the atmosphere of your story, the day to day conditions that affect your world and the people who live there beyond the Setting. Is there an oppressive king or a corrupt mayor who allows crime to run rampant? This can create a sense of fear in your world. Is it an idyllic paradise filled with sunshine? Do your characters live under a shroud of paranoia that they will be taken by the government or aliens or monsters in the night? A story of political intrigue will demand a certain type of Climate where a cross-country car chase will demand another. Tension, whimsy, depression, peacefulness, xenophobia...religious indoctrination, social pressures, progressive scientific discovery, widespread disease infection, war...these are what wrap the reader up in your world and they provide the mindset with which your reader will experience the story you want to tell them. Climate is how your story feels, and if you can build it well, your reader will be captured before they have a chance to put the story down.

My final piece of advice on how to develop a proper Tableau is to first gain some insight by doing one for yourself. That's right, YOU! Get a sheet of paper or open a new document on your word processor and write down a full Tableau on your own Setting, your own Character (yourself), your Backstory and the Climate in which you live. It's harder to do than you might think, and it will help you more than you could imagine.