I stockpile notes for the fiction pieces I will write or finish writing someday. I settle on a working title and create an e-folder for the piece. I draft extensive character and plot sketches and save them in a document with this title format: WT Notes (WT=Working Title). In my Notes.doc, I also include entries on character names and name meanings as well as ideas, scenes and research I have done for the piece.
Names are immensely important in my fiction as is true in real life. Names do not merely signify gender; they signify gender expectations, race, class, culture, and the hopes that parents bestow upon their children. One of my characters is named Vivian. She possesses a stately beauty, and she is quite spoiled. Her parents are upper-middle class although they were both born into poverty. Vivian’s parents are both attractive. They want the world to know that they and their daughter are special and privileged. They do not want anyone to perceive Vivian (or them) as ordinary black people. They raised Vivian to have high expectations for herself and others. Vivian is expected to “marry well,” i.e., to marry an upper-middle class or upper class man who will take care of her and provide a familiar, if not better, quality of life. A commonplace name like Stacy or Marie would not do for this character, nor would a unique name like Ta’Nnetta or Zeranipha.
All of these details reflect the ideas that I contemplate in my neophytic attempt to create a world of fiction. In order to know who Vivian is, I must first know what and who shaped her. Who are her people? What do they want most for their child? Did Vivian usually conform to their wishes when she was little, or did she rebel? How did Vivian self-identify as an adolescent? Did she self-identify, or is she still living in her parent’s shadow? What does she want most for herself? I draft scene after scene, so I can find answers to these questions.
Although most of these scenes end up with strikethroughs (I rarely ever delete scenes from my Notes.doc), drafting scenes helps me make sense of my characters. I get to play around with Vivian’s environment and learn how she reacts to it. Is Vivian a worrier, or is she a things-will-work-themselves-out kind of person? Probably the latter because her mother and father have always taken care of her financial needs. If this is the case, what would make Vivian lose her shit? A dint in her new car? Not likely, but perhaps something that can’t be bought or repaired, something priceless and emotion-based. This pressure point is the thing that propels her; it is integral to the plot of the story. I also need to love her. How else can I ensure that I am challenging her but not breaking her? If I can’t develop a feeling of love for a character, I don’t write that character.
Once I know who a character is and one or two things that propel him/her, I do focused research. The truth is I do research from the start, but at the conception phase, my research is somewhat random and may even occur by happenstance. I may research cities and details that relate to the character’s history, i.e., neighborhoods where my characters are likely to live; schools and educational requirements they need for their careers, etc. I try to ground the characters in place and time. Sometimes I’ll be browsing the Internet, and I’ll come across an article or an advertisement that doesn’t interest me in the least, but it would be interesting to one of my characters. For example, I recently came across an article on how to wash expensive lingerie. This is something Vivian would know about. Her lingerie is important to her, and anything that is important to her is going to be expensive. Naturally, I read the article and added its key points to my Notes.doc.
Focused research is required for any aspect of the character’s life that is technical (e.g., legal, psychological, medical, etc.). This also extends to secondary or tertiary character(s) who play a significant, even if small, role in the primary character’s life. In Vivian’s case, I decided that she would be connected to someone who was drafted to a college that was known for sports. This detail was pivotal in my research on cities. I had to choose cities that have hard-core college sports teams—teams that win tournaments and produce high-ranking draft picks. I also needed to learn how college drafts work, how players are ranked for drafts, and what limitations exist for drafting students (i.e., age, grade point average, weight for a given position, etc.). All this detail goes into my Notes.doc.
This is how I start developing the cosmology of a character. I’ve never actually completed a manuscript for a novel, but one day I will, and when I do, my Notes.doc will be invaluable.