Celluloid Diaries: How to write a character study?

Monday, January 7, 2013

How to write a character study?

how to write a character study

The following post is by guest author Blair McDowell. She runs a B&B on the West Coast of Canada six months of the year. When the tourist season is over she travels the world, resides in her little house on a Caribbean Island and writes. In this guest post, she shares the process of how she created the character study for her latest book, Sonata.


I always begin any new book by choosing a setting I know and love, and then by creating the characters I want to put in that setting. Only after that do I start thinking about the plot. Then I write a synopsis for that plot before I write page one.

Any of these three things, setting, characters, or plot, can change as my story grows, but I have a very complete plan before I start any new novel.

This is, of course, just my way of writing. I realized that many very fine authors have started with the first line of their stories and kept going until the last lines. Who could ever forget “Scarlet O’Hara was not a beautiful woman.” And “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” I don’t know whether Margaret Mitchell was a planner or a seat-of-the-pantser. But somehow I suspect she was the latter. Gone With the Wind has a spontaneity that I don’t think could ever come from advanced planning. But perhaps I’m wrong. After all, she gives us a detailed backstory of how Scarlet’s mother came to marry the improbable Irishman O’Hara.

I like complex multigenerational stories. And I really like older men. In Sonata Sean McAllister, the father of my heroine Sayuri, is a fifty-something millionaire tech tycoon. He’s handsome and fit. He swims and kayaks. And he’s been a widower for eighteen years.

His daughter, my heroine, Sayuri, comes home after studying in Paris to find him engaged to a woman she’s never met and about whom she knows nothing. Who is Alyssa James? Below is the brief character study I originally drew of Alyssa. As Sonata developed, Alyssa became much more important to the plot than I originally intended, and I watched her character shift and change as my story shifted and changed. Alyssa James, as I originally drew her below, developed into a quite different character by the end of my story. That sometimes happens. Still, for me, it’s important to have a clear image in mind for each of my characters before I begin writing.

Character study for Alyssa James

Sean McAllister’s fiancĂ©. Sean met her when her firm was hired to do some consulting for his business. Alyssa emigrated to Canada eight years ago from Great Britain. At thirty-five, she’s nearer Sayuri’s age than her father’s. Alyssa is the first woman Sean has been serious about since his wife’s death, 16 years ago.

Alyssa has blond hair, worn in an elegant French twist and an English peaches-and-cream complexion. She’s a bit shorter than Sayuri, graceful, sophisticated, worldly. She wears expensive designer clothes and stiletto heels and wouldn’t dream of going out without a hat. Her long fingernails are painted crimson. Expensive scent. (Guerlain?) She wears furs. Extremely feminine, she carries herself like a model.

She’s given to occasional sarcasm with Sayuri when Sean isn’t around. Sugar sweet when he is.

Alyssa James is the picture of an older man’s trophy wife, apparently in it for financial security and social position. She sees Sean’s daughter, Sayuri, as a potential threat.

write a character study

Excerpt from Sonata

Below is a brief excerpt from Sonata that gives a hint of Alyssa’s character at the beginning of my story.

Alyssa smiled. “You must stay with us while you’re in Vancouver. The house is certainly large enough for all of us. I hope you’ll continue to consider it your home.”

Sayuri was shocked into silence. Was she being told, none too subtly, that she was a guest on her own home?

Her father spoke sharply. “Of course Sayuri will stay here. Where else would she stay?”

“Just as I said, dear. We must organize some dinner parties and perhaps a dance to welcome your daughter back to our home.”

Sayuri threw a startled glance at her father. Our home? Alyssa was living here? She took a deep breath. Of course, she’d be living here. After all, they weren’t children and they were engaged to be married.

She turned to Alyssa and responded. “I have an incredible amount of work ahead of me in the coming months, preparing for my upcoming recitals and for my performance with the VSO. And I’ve been invited to replace the cellist in the Amalphi Quartet. On top of that, I’ve agreed to take some advanced students at the Conservatory and give some Master Classes at the University. I’m afraid I won’t have much time for socializing.”

A small frown crossed Alyssa’s features. “I shouldn’t think you’d need to teach, Sayuri. Surely your father can support you until your concert career builds in North America. You should concentrate on performing.”

“But I like teaching. It’s as important a part of my life as performing.”

Alyssa shrugged her shoulders, a small dismissive gesture. “As you like. We’ll keep the social life to a minimum until after your recital at the Chan. We must have a reception here after that. And of course, you’ll be involved in our wedding. We’re having the rehearsal dinner at the Club and a reception after the ceremony here at the house. We’ll bring in caterers for that. It’s a bit beyond Nora and Joseph, I’m afraid.”

Her father cleared his throat. “We were hoping you’d play at our wedding.”

Sayuri tried to hide her dismay. The wedding was that imminent? “Of course I’ll play for you. When is it to be?”

Alyssa answered. “Six weeks from today. We were just waiting for you to arrive.” She put her arm through Sean’s and smiled at Sayuri. “Shall we go to dinner?”

Are you an author? What are the first things you do when starting a new novel?


sonata novel


  1. Running a B&B, traveling and writing? Now that's what I call a fascinating life :)

  2. Thank you so much for this facinating post and giveaway. I am currently working on my first novel, so i found the above most insightful, interesting and helpful. x

  3. This is a great giveaway! Thanks!


  4. Thanks for the giveaway! I have stayed at a couple B&B's before and to me the quainter the better!

  5. Hi Blair. I find it interesting that you start with setting. I always start with a scene and then build the story around that. Your book sounds very interesting.

  6. Oh my gosh! I love the idea for this book! I would love to get a hold of Sonata!

  7. This book sounds so absorbing. I can’t wait to get sucked into it!


  8. The cover is very good. Gets your attention.

  9. It looks like a fun read!

    Thanks for the giveaway


  10. This book sounds like a good read!

  11. This book sounds like something I would like to read. Thank you for the giveaway

  12. I need a new book to read! I hope I win!
    love_jellybean_love at hotmail dot com

  13. I love reading author interviews, they make reading their books even more of a joy. Thank you for this.

  14. sounds like a great book thanks for having a giveaway

  15. I love reading...my favorite pastime. Thanks for the giveaway

  16. TheSavySue(at)yahoo(dot)com Thanks for the giveaway!

  17. Great giveaway...I would love to read this book!!!


  18. Thanks for the giveaway...bluejeansrosary69@yahoo.com

  19. Thanks ! I need a new read!


  20. Thank you for the great giveaway!

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