Character building and 3 Body Problem

by A writer's life

March came and went, and as usual my writing plan didn’t quite work out. But I remembered and learned some very important character development lessons. All in all, not a failure of a month!

March writing recap

My plan for March was:

  1. Fix up the outline for the last three chapters of the book.
  2. Continue to avoid editing as you go.
  3. Get my writing time in as early in the day as possible.
  4. Write at least 2000 words, hopefully more.

Here’s how that turned out:

1. Fix the outline

When I started writing Project: Dreamcatcher, I had an outline. Then the outline fell by the wayside and I got stuck. So, in February I worked to get myself unstuck by outlining my book again.

I didn’t quite finish the outline last month, so I had a goal for March to actually square this away.

(Checking notes to see if I completed this task… March was a long month!)

I didn’t finish outlining the three last chapters yet. No biggie though, as I have another important thing that needs doing first in April, before I do any more writing… I’ll explain later.

2. Don’t edit as you go

Editing while you write your draft kills creativity and flow. I’m terrible at this, so I’m working towards no longer editing every sentence as I write it.

I tried my best, and what I wrote during March feels like a stinking pile of 💩. I definitely didn’t edit as I went along. 😅

Not an A+, but I’d give myself at least a passing mark for this one in March.

3. Write early in the day

In February, I theorised that I didn’t do enough writing because I always put off writing until late in the evening. So for March I resolved to write early in the day.

Did that work? In the words of a great Australian, “yeah, nah”.

Doing any kind of creative work early in the day has always been exceedingly difficult for me. I seem to need the pressure of being up against a deadline (or bedtime) to achieve any creative outcomes. So this is going to require a bit of a shift in mindset for me. That doesn’t happen overnight. New habits to be formed and all of that.

In other words, this is a work in progress, so let’s check back again on that in next month’s update.

4. Write at least 2000 words

Rather than having a goal to write every day during March, I aimed to write at least 2000 words.

I got close-ish… I ended up with about 1620 words. That’s not a lot, especially considering that only about 1150 of those went into my draft.

But, the remaining 470ish words, which did not go in the actual draft, are probably some of the most important words I’ve written for this project. They might eventually come to count for 50,000 words!

I’ll explain. With the help of 3 Body Problem! 😁

Character development and how 3 Body Problem helped my book

You may potentially have heard of 3 Body Problem. It’s a Netflix show based on a Chinese sci-fi trilogy and made by the Game of Thrones creators. I finished watching it today and it was good fun.

The plot is way simplified compared to the books, and some of the plot is original to the show (as in, it doesn’t happen in the books). Just like Game of Thrones. But, for the record, I rated the show two thumbs up in Netflix and I’m looking forward to the next season.

(Getting sidetracked here…)

The Netflix show had nothing to do with helping my book-writing endeavours. At least not directly.

But indirectly? Knowing the show was coming to Netflix, I decided to read the books before watching it.

I had already read the books about eight years ago, and I loved them. But parts of the plot had been lost to me in the memory pits of time.

A very significant part of book two – The Dark Forest – is actually a lesson in character development. I paid very little attention to this the first time I read the book, because I wasn’t trying to write a novel then. But this time around, it hit differently!

One of the main characters of The Dark Forest – Luo Ji – creates a fictional character which, in his mind, becomes so real that he can see, hear, talk to, and fall in love with her.

(This part of the plot did not make it into the TV-series by the way, and Luo Ji in the book is Saul in the show, so that’s why Netflix was of no direct help here.)

Luo Ji’s then girlfriend – Bai Rong, who is a YA-author – asks him to write a novel for her. The main character should represent Luo Ji’s dream lover.

Easy, Luo Ji says, and gets to work. But, he struggles to come up with a good plot, and his character feels flat. So, Bai Rong tells him:

Your approach is wrong. … What a literary character does in ten minutes might be a reflection of ten years’ experience. You can’t be limited to the plot of a novel – you’ve got to imagine her entire life, and what actually gets put into words is just the tip of the iceberg.

Bai Rong in The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

Luo Ji does as he is told – imagining everything about his character… Her life as a baby, her childhood, her first day at school, her favourite books and music, the websites she visits, what her eyes look like in the light of a fireplace. Then, one day at the library…

…he imagined her standing by a row of shelves, reading. … Suddenly she looked up from the book and over at him, and flashed a smile. He was taken aback: Had he told her to smile?

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

This meta character becomes so real in Luo Ji’s mind that she accompanies him everywhere he goes for quite some time and he falls head-over-heels in love with her.

(It turns out later, that someone like her actually does exist. But you’ll have to read the book to find out more. Don’t want to spoil the plot too much for you!)

Back on track again… The lesson for authors, which Bai Rong sums up later in the chapter is this:

The highest level of literary creation is when the characters in a novel possess life in the mind of the writer. The writer is unable to control them, and might not even be able to predict the next action they will take. We can only follow them in wonder to observe and record the minute details of their lives like a voyeur. That’s how a classic is made.

Bai Rong in The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

Now, am I saying that the Project: Dreamcatcher characters are real in my mind, that I have a good-old chat with them at night, and maybe possibly I’m in love with them?


Am I saying it should be that way?

Definitely not. I don’t want to be the strange man talking to imaginary friends while riding the bus around town.

🙄 What am I saying then, dammit?

Reading The Dark Forest made me realise (again) that I don’t know my Project: Dreamcatcher characters well enough!

Some of them have been on my mind for years, but in terms of character development I’ve never really gone beyond what I needed for the plot there and then.

Again and again, this has stopped my writing in its tracks because I simply don’t know what my characters will do, or why they will do it.

So, with a bit of 3 Body Problem inspiration, I started imagining the hero of my book – Tara – in much more detail.

I’ve imagined her childhood in exile due to her mother – a king’s mistress – being driven away by the queen, how she lost her mother, how she lost someone else who is really close to her, how she became entangled with the book’s antagonist, how she learnt to fight but isn’t great at strategising or big-picture thinking. I’ve seen how she moves with no wasted energy, how she wipes the blood-splatter on her face as she guts an orc (yeah, sorry!), and how she gets super excited about funny panda hats (which is based on someone I know, so that wasn’t too hard)!

I’m not even halfway done building Tara’s backstory yet. But those all-important 470 words I wrote down in my character building files, could be turned into a full-length novel all by themselves. And thanks to this exercise I can already imagine so much more of what Tara will do, how she will react, and why.

My plan for April

Here is my plan for April:

  1. Put my book draft in a (virtual) drawer and don’t look at it again until May.
  2. Spend the entire month developing deep backstories for the main characters in Project: Dreamcatcher, including Tara, my protagonist, my antagonist, and the most important supporting characters.

That’s it! I’m not planning to write a single word on my book draft this month. All I’m going to do is spend time getting to know my characters much, much better.

So with all of that said, Marius out! See you next month!