40,000 to Flesh: How I Journaled My Way to Character

When I decided to write Accounting for it All, I knew one of my greatest challenges would be to lend authenticity to my protagonist, Robin. After all, she and I don’t have much in common where career choice is concerned: I’m a write-by-morning and export-by-day kind of guy, and she’s, well, a porn-star-turned-accountant. So yeah… I couldn’t exactly write myself onto the page.

But from the moment the idea for her character struck me, I knew she was the best candidate to carry the story I wanted to tell. I had to find a way to bring her to life; the only question was how.

I tried simply writing her at first, but everything I put together read like cardboard—hardly able to stand on its own. After slogging through a few (embarrassing) chapters, I nearly gave up on the project altogether.

All of my doubt, however, evaporated when I discovered the value of journaling.

I don’t mean journaling of the “this is how my day went” variety, but rather the approach through which I compiled my research before synthesizing it with my character sketches and backstory. The process was illuminating: so much so that I feel exploring it for one’s own work could prove to be the literary fairy dust that turns one’s characters from cardboard to flesh and bone.

My Research

If I were ever going to write a porn-star-turned-accountant successfully, I knew I had to do my research. With this in mind, I created a digital journal into which I could record my notes. When I watched documentaries including After Porn Ends and Hot Girls Wanted, I typed away in my newfound journal friend, and after reading essay after essay in The Feminist Porn Book, I was sure to do the same.

Then there were the Reddit AMAs, the various blog posts, even the fictionalized accounts of accounting practices as seen in popular TV and film—all of it made its way into my journal, and all of it proved effective in helping me organize my thoughts: something I knew would be critical when moving into my next stage of journaling.

Character Sketching

Getting a character right is tough. With a journal full of research, however, creating a protagonist whose experiences felt true to life became that much easier.

When developing character, I again used a digital journal to better explore who Robin was as a person. Sure, I knew her name, but what were her greatest fears, her highest hopes, the pet peeves that most grated her? I set myself to journaling about all of this and more—all the while keeping in mind the research I’d done earlier.

By the time I finished sketching, I’d not only journaled on fifty different facets of what makes Robin the person she is, but I’d done the same for every other character as well.

That’s right: every character—including some who ultimately failed to make it beyond the first draft.

Even after I’d armed myself with a journal loaded with research and character sketches, my attempts to write Robin’s story read weakly. They may have graduated from cardboard to plastic (which I suppose would have been fine were I writing characters made from literal plastic à la Toy Story), but I still wanted flesh and bone on the page.

To achieve this, I did the (seemingly un-)reasonable thing and journaled 40,000 words of backstory.

Backstory

If 40,000 words seems like a lot, it’s because it is: it’s about half of a novel’s worth, anyway. Do I regret writing any one of those words, though? Absolutely not.

In taking an approach to Robin’s backstory that focused on journaling her day-to-day experiences in the adult industry—all of which takes place eight years prior to the book’s core plot—I finally achieved an understanding of who she was as a person.

Not only that, but I discovered her voice! By journaling her past in the first person, I came to truly hear her in my mind, which led me to realize I needed to write the manuscript itself with a point of view that planted readers firmly in Robin’s shoes.

Finally, 40,000-plus words later, I was able to write flesh and bone onto the page.

Summary

Every writer’s experience is as unique as his or her characters. No one approach will work for all writers, but by journaling my research, character sketches, and backstory, I maximized my manuscript’s potential. Who knows? Perhaps journaling will help you do the same.

Editor’s Note: I want to thank r.r.campbell for his very relevant guest post, which ties directly the October theme of National Journal Writing Month: Exploring Your Creative Mind Through Journal Writing. 

In addition to this article, Mr. Campbell did an interview me, Bakari Chavanu, about National Journal Writing Month for his Writescast podcast, which will be released on September 15th. I will share the link to the episode here, and send it to my subscribers when it’s posted.

Thank you again, Ryan, for sharing how you use journal writing to research and develop your characters. 

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r.r. campbell

r. r. campbell is an author, editor, and host of the r. r. campbell writescast. He lives with his girlfriend and their two cats in Madison, Wisconsin, from where he is currently seeking representation for Accounting for it All. You can find him online at rrcampbellwrites.com, or @iamrrcampbell and @writescast on Twitter. His work has also appeared online with Five:2:One Magazine.

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