The Snowflake Method in Action
One major planning step – done before any real drafting takes place – is character descriptions. Getting to know your characters helps to guide the plot when it comes time to actually draft the story. I use an extensive heuristic device (a series of questions) to help me describe the people who populate the pages of my books. This series of questions forces me to know important things about these people, some of which never finds its way onto the pages, but all of which affects the outcome.
As an example, here is the character sketch I did for the main character of The Point of Escape, Jerrod Beams:
Jerrod Beams (Protagonist)
Age: 48 (11 August 1964)
Motivation (abstract want): Fullness of life, happiness in the Greek sense of eudemonia.
Goal (concrete want): To split the dilemma of escaping a dreary, meaningless job and living up to his responsibilities as a bread winner and realistic “grown up.”
Conflict (Preventing him/her reaching goal): Jerrod lacks self-knowledge, so he doesn’t understand what would make him happy, and he is locked into financial and moral commitments that appear to bind him to his work, which in turn discourages self-reflection.
Epiphany (What he/she learns; how he/she changes): Jerrod comes to see that he doesn’t know (Socrates’ wisdom), and begins to question what it is that he wants and must do.
General physical description: Of medium height (5’ 10”), with brown hair thinning on top, and grey temples, he weighs 170 lbs. (14% BMI) down from 190 lbs., or about 25% body fat before he started working out with colleague and friend Fred Trudham, his once-athletic frame weighed down by neglect rather than abuse.
Hometown: Born and raised in Bowie, Maryland, he grew up in the suburbs that sprawled to accommodate the growing federal workforce.
He is married to the former Janice Howland of Laurel, Maryland, whom he met at a coffee shop soon after returning to the DC area after college. This is the only marriage for each of them, and together they have one grown son, Matthew, who lives in Seattle.
Jerrod’s parents, Matthew and Mary, retired to Naples, Florida, seven years ago. Matthew worked forty years for McDonnell-Douglas, and Mary held a job as a high school administrative assistant once Jerrod and his two younger sisters entered school.
Friends: Jerrod has no close friends, a consequence of his long years of 13-hour days. The closest relationship he enjoys is that with co-worker Fred Trudham, with whom he has struck up a workout partnership. Jerrod has no “guys” upon which to call for companionship or assistance.
Other close relationships: He remains close to his parents, whom he calls regularly and visits annually. He also keeps in touch with his two younger sisters via email and social media (Facebook).
Relationship with men: Jerrod establishes “good working relationships” with those around him, but nothing deeper. It’s not that he lacks a “deep-down” (pace, Hermione Granger), but that he has habituated himself to emotional solitude. He enjoys company, but does not seek it out for lack of time, but more so for lack of practice and hope.
Relationship with women: He is and has been a faithful husband, though not immune to the charms of a pretty face or shapely leg. Knowing his weakness, he is careful to maintain professional decorum with the few women of his acquaintance.
Job: Jerrod is a GS-14 Office Manager in RITA’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics, with two employees reporting to him (GS-7 and -11). Both are competent and reliable, making his role almost superfluous. Still, he is in line for promotion to Deputy Associate Administrator, and occasionally serves as Acting AA in the absence of the AA and Deputy. He does not aspire to promotion, but takes the steps expected of someone his rank who does. He does so more out of inertia than duty; it’s “what’s done,” but it’s habit that makes him join in to the extent that he does.
Dress style: Since his promotion to Office Director, he has been one of the “suits.” Joseph A. Bank was his friend at first. Later raises have allowed him to explore Brooks Brothers, ascending the earning-and-spending spiral of the government executive.
Religion: He is a faithful Catholic, born and raised. Temptation brings his faith to the surface. Still, his faith is usually in the background. He is dutiful, and follows the rules, but not out of any close personal sense of God in his life. This will challenge him as he begins to examine his life, and he has the opportunity to either see his faith life as another manifestation of the Void, or this question itself as evidence that the 4HWW life is suspect.
Attitude to religion: See above.
Favorite pastimes: Reading, cooking and, lately, exercise.
Hobbies: None really. He is too time-starved to imagine carving out any hobby time.
Favorite sports: He watches pro football, a lifelong Ravens fan
Favorite foods: Jerrod is an omnivore in the fullest sense, and enjoys exploring in the kitchen when he can. This is an area for growth.
Strongest positive personality trait: Perseverance.
Strongest negative personality trait: Exteriorly, the willingness to doggedly endure. Interiorly, the ability to suppress displeasure and the resulting anger.
Sense of humor: He is “quick,” and given to quoting or paraphrasing lines from movies and literature. Janice, though far from unintelligent, is often left behind by his rapid trains of thought, something he finds endearing.
Temper: A melancholic, but on the cusp with choleric, which will come out more so as he realizes his plight.
Consideration for others: He is kind in his words, but doesn’t go beyond the surface. He’s not a “get to know you” boss or coworker.
How other people see him/her: Some see him as detached and uncaring, but he is simply habitually a man apart.
Opinion of him/herself: He knows he has done well by his employer and his family, and feels a certain pride. But he believes he should be happier for this, and suspects that he is missing something or doing something wrong.
Other traits, especially those to be brought out in story: Fast driver; needs alone time, but not as much as he thinks. And he is angrier than he knows, and doesn’t know why when he discovers that he is [quere: Does the anger come out before or after the 4-Hour process has begun?]
Ambitions: A secure retirement, but not much beyond that Void.
Philosophy of life: He lacks one. He has “done” more than thought of why. He will probably not address this aspect of the Void, but will feel satisfied with the rich life of exploration Ferriss sells.
Most important thing to know about this character: Though he is unhappy, he doesn’t know how unhappy he is. Though he is capable, he doesn’t know how capable. Though he knows he could be happy, he doesn’t know how happy. In short, he does not know himself.
Will readers like or dislike this character, and why? Readers will relate to his dull existence, and his anger when he sees it for what it is. They will vicariously thrill to the escape theme and Jerrod’s ultimate triumph.
One-Paragraph POV Summary
The dullness, the monotony of my life first became apparent to me as I droned to work in DC, where I contributed to the hive-collective. The hum of tires on the Beltway concrete had for years filled the hollow space that was my life; now I heard an echo. I had sounded the Void. Seeking “escape,” I found inspiration in Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Work Week, and stepped through the looking glass. I didn’t know what I wanted to escape to, just that I wanted to escape from, which was good enough for me. Or so I thought. I cleared all the fillers from my life, from the hum of my tires (telework reduced it, then remote work eliminated it), to the 10-year-old moving boxes in my garage (I can park my car in it!), to every unnecessary email twitch. Following Ferriss’ advice, I started my own business , which grew rapidly, as did that Echo inside me and the unease of my family, until Panic! I retreated to the safety of my office, only to discover in the midst of bureaucratic conformity the strength and peace necessary for a self-directed life.
So, there you have it: a glimpse inside the process that brought The Point of Escape to life. In future posts I’ll offer some sneak-peeks into the current project, and maybe even invite you to contribute to the process.