First Draft: Peopling the World or Who ARE These Characters?

WARNING: You’ll be getting a lot of posts about first drafts in the next few months. But don’t worry, those revision posts will be coming along after that!

My friend Jana McBurney-Lin talks about a character in her book My Half of the Sky who came out of nowhere. I think, if I remember right, it’s the woman who tells fortunes in the park and who becomes a central part of the main character, Li Hui’s, life. Jana talks about how this woman started out as a small, secondary character and then grew–of her own accord, pretty much–into someone critical to the story and to Li Hui’s character arc.

Yesterday, as I wrote, four new characters stepped into my story’s pages. Without even so much of an “Excuse me.” The words kept flowing from and around them, so I was kind of like, what the… as I typed their dialogue and actions. I didn’t argue with them, I didn’t try to push them away, I just sort of let them tell me what they were doing there and what they wanted to say.

Jacob, Goldie, Sonia, and Mary, where the heck did you come from? (I’m having a lot of fun naming my secondary characters after some of the gazillion great-aunts and great-uncles I had, some of whom I knew, some of whom I never met, but who definitely seem to have been given the right names for this era!)

Okay, it wasn’t quite all that muse-driven. I did stop typing. I did look at these characters for a minute and try to figure out where and how they fit into the story I had already plotted without them. I thought about the fact that these people might not stay in the book (I mean, I already have two love-interests planned for Caro; what in the world is she doing flirting with this new guy?), and I thought about how these characters might take my story in directions I haven’t foreseen. And I realized that, at this point, either of those factors could turn into a bad or a good thing.

Now is not the time to make that decision.

Now is the time when there do need to be more people in my MC’s life, more people who are just part of who she is, part of the world through which she moves on a daily basis. The scenes I was writing yesterday mostly take place at Caro’s school (let’s not even get started on how little I know about public schools in 1913 yet!), and that school will be a big part of the choices she makes along her path. There have to be students in that school, and there have to be friends and acquaintances and apparently at least one boy with whom she has an ongoing competition to be the best math student. (???!!)

So for now, these folk stay. It’ll hurt, I know, to get rid of any of them, because they came into my brain and into the scenes, if not fully-fledged, with habits and personality traits that I’m already hooked on.  And it’ll be tricky, challenging, even frustrating to build them into something stronger than they are now, if they do need to stay, if they convince me they truly have a role in this story.

But it’s the first draft. It’s the time to scatter ideas and characters onto the page and see where they fall and what they want to do. Yes, I question them. Yes, I stop for a minute to really look at them and ask them, “What are you doing here?” Hello, I’m Becky, and I’m a control freak. I’m getting better, though, at letting go, at keeping my mind open and trusting that these people have something to tell me, something to add to the story.

Of course, if they’re fibbing, I can always—ouch!—bring out that red pen and kill off a few darlings. 😦


  1. I love it when the muses give me unexpected characters and scenes.

    Sounds like you’re letting go of some control and going with the flow. I know you’ll have fun and also do the right thing when it all shakes out.

    Can’t wait to hear about public school in 1913. Do post about that when the time comes, okay?


    • beckylevine says:

      Joyce, I did manage to get in a few details that I’m not SURE about yet, but, hey, it’s the first draft. Apparently, kids did use pencils, but they also turned them all in at the end of the class or day. I’m not sure about the specifics, just found one article about the spread of diptheria being traced to pencils at school. Wow!

      I really do have to find out if Chicago schools had co-ed classrooms then!


      • What an adventure you’ll have finding out all that cool stuff.

        And diptheria passed through pencils – very good stuff! (if diptheria can be good)


        • beckylevine says:

          One of my critique partners write mysteries, and the discussion can bet pretty gruesome, but I think historical-fiction writers hold their own in that area!


  2. Trish says:

    I find it best to let these characters have their say. My own experience… I sat down to write a story about a girl whose reputation had been ruined by a guy she’d once really liked. It was her story to tell, but all of a sudden he became very interesting. So I thought, “Okay, maybe I need to try alternating POV and let him tell his side of the story.” Except he was so compelling that he took over and now the story belongs to him. And I can’t imagine it being better any other way!


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