Characters for NaNoWriMo

crest-bda7b7a6e1b57bb9fb8ce9772b8faafbIf you’ve been planning your NaNoNovel, hopefully you have a solid bead on a plot by now. The big questions–who, what, where, why, and how?–have been answered, or maybe you’re working on that now. This could be a good time to focus in on the who? of it all.

(If you’re still stalled on the basic plot, don’t give up yet! I haven’t hit on the idea I’m hoping for either. Keep generating ideas by free writing. There are a lot of options out there for prompts. I have a few posts from earlier this year about ways to dream up new ideas for stories that you can find here. Or, if you haven’t already, go through the activities in my “Seeds for NaNo” posts from the last few weeks, which are listed on this page. Write down every nugget of something that you could turn into a plot, or that you think you’d like to use as part of a bigger story. Keep trying to tie those thoughts together, and always ask questions: “Why would someone jump in the sewer dressed in a ball gown?” Crazy things like that, worked backwards, can lead to places you’ll never expect to end up.)

A lot of times, my characters really come into their own while I’m writing the actual story. However, there are things that we can do during the planning stages to flesh out the characters.

1. List:
First, it would be helpful to see all of the characters you already have in mind, all spread out somewhere. Making a list of each character is a good starting point. You can add to the list things like, “Guy who beat MC out of the job she wanted and rubs it in her face,” “Person Joe goes to, to find answers when he’s suspicious,” or other roles that you know you need to fill, but don’t have any specifics in mind for yet.

Then, give each character their own page in a notebook, their own note card, their own document file, or their own section within a file (Scrivener and other writing programs work well for this kind of thing). List everything you already know about that character–age, physical descriptions, personality, background, role in the story, where they’ll end up by the end of the story, even how they may change by the end of the story.

Some people like to use character sheets/templates, and that’s okay too. I’ve already expressed my thoughts on character sheets in the past, so I’ll just say I don’t use them. They don’t work for me. However, that doesn’t mean they’re bad, and if you’ve never used one, it certainly can’t hurt to do so. I would at least suggest not using the first one you find, though. Read through the fields that are there for you to fill in and find one with categories that will actually give you insight into your characters.

2. Write:
To get to know my characters, give them their own voice, or discover why they are who they are, my favorite method is just writing. Write a scene unrelated to the plot, centered around the character in question, maybe even from the point-of-view of that character, even if the main story isn’t. Writing prompts can come in handy for something like this, if an idea doesn’t readily present itself. But the general idea is to write out a scene and let that character shine in their uniqueness, and it gives you a better feel for that character.
(Disclaimer: the above paragraph was copied right from a previous post I made about character creation. In fact, it’s the post I linked to in #1 above. Clearly I feel this point deeply.)

3. Ask:
This is an odd one for me to include. You know those people who say their characters are always talking in their head? Complaining about what the writer has done to them, or begging to be let out if they’re still pent-up? Yeah, I’m not one of those people. It seems like every other writer out there is, but I’m not.

However, I did something similar once–initiated by me, not a disembodied voice in my head. I was working at a menial task for several hours, and had forgotten my iPod. I was faced with a nice long time of silence and boredom. In those types of situations, I often do try to think of what areas of my current writing need attention, so I can be thinking through an issue while I’m doing something else. This time, I decided to have a conversation with one of my main characters. His name is Naolin, and he gets a pretty raw deal in “Pithea.”

I started by asking, “What do you think of the story?” And then I imagined what his response would be, based on his character and what happens to him in the story. After a few snarky answers on his part, I decided to start at the beginning by asking him about the motivations for some of his actions when he first appears in the story. Though all of the questions and answers came from me, when digging deeper into his psyche in relation to the scenes in the story, I actually did gain some insight into a few of the things that he’d done simply because I said he’d done them. There was more of a why than I otherwise would have had.

Later, I tried to start over when I had a notebook to write it in. It never quite went as well as that first time. From now on, I’ll record the conversation the first time, somehow–either by writing/typing it or by saying it all out loud while I’m, say, doing the dishes and recording myself talk (though that’s only if necessary…I hate listening to myself afterward).

4. Voice:
The last thing I suggest for working on your characters in advance is to work out their voices. I’ve found it to be a difficult task in the past, but making sure that every one of your characters doesn’t talk in exactly the same manner (and moreso, that they don’t all talk exactly like you) is important. Deciding how a character should talk can go hand-in-hand with figuring out who they are.

Where is he from? Different regions of the world, and even of the same country, have different dialects. (In the US, would they say soda, pop, or sodapop?)

What kind of education does she have? If she’s an English major, she should have pretty good grammar. If she didn’t finish high school, she may (not necessarily, but could) have poor grammar.

Perhaps someone rarely uses contractions, or someone uses ridiculous similes a lot, or someone only speaks in one-word sentences. All of these things can distinguish characters from each other. That doesn’t mean that every single character has to have a distinct way of talking. That could slow the story down too. But keep these things in mind and you can make your characters more memorable. Also, try to avoid outright stereotypes, but sometimes it can help to start with a stereotype and back off a bit, or change it to give that character more depth.

One final note: plan your characters now, but never be afraid to let them develop differently than you had planned while you’re writing your first draft. When they really start to come alive, they may tell us things we don’t realize until we actually see them in action.

Please feel free to share your thoughts on my ramblings, your own tips, or any questions you may have along the way.

Plan Every Day: Those With Whom We Spend Most of Our Time

dream plan write

Character creation is an important part of developing a story. It’s one of the key elements of fiction, right up there with plot and setting. A unique character can make a stale plot seem new again. Alternatively, an overused character type can drag down a brilliant plot. So what do we do? We plan. We carefully craft our characters before we start to write. Sometimes, before we even start to outline.

(Obviously not all characters are planned in advance–you’re not always able to plan for everything that may come up as you’re writing. And maybe pantsers don’t have any characters figured out before they start. Is that a thing? I don’t even know. If so, though, at some point, I would think they’d have to slow down and flesh out the characters that came as they wrote.)

For me, character creation can sometimes go hand-in-hand with the outlining. As I’m weaving the plot, the characters are being defined by what the story needs. Sometimes, an idea for a character is sharp in my head before I’ve even figure out what may ever happen to that character.

In my early writing, I wasn’t great at making various characters have their own distinctness. That doesn’t mean there were 5 of the same person, but with different names and genders, wandering around interacting and moving the plot forward. Rather, I seemed to have a general nice, friendly type of character and a general crabby, anti-social type of character. I noticed that a lot of my side characters almost mirrored the main character.

In the time since then, I’ve been more careful to give each character their own sense of being. It has been an important part of my current revision of “Pithea” to flesh out side characters who are actual people in my head, but don’t get a lot of “screen time,” so to speak. Just because they have small parts doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be as much themselves as I can make them in those parts.

There can be a question, though, of how to really craft your character into a real person. Character sheets are an obvious answer, and you can find different forms of those all over the place. I’ve tried that before, but I’ve realized I don’t care for them. For a while, I thought that if I couldn’t answer a question like, “What is your character’s philosophy on death?” it was because my characters weren’t deep enough. Obviously I needed to answer that to have a really good character. But the truth is, no matter how I answered, it felt silly. It felt forced. It just didn’t work for me. (Character sheets or profiles can be a great tool if it works for you. I’d never discourage anyone from doing it. I may even try it again someday. Maybe I just need the right template.)

To get to know my characters, give them their own voice, or discover why they are who they are, my favorite method is just writing. Write a scene unrelated to the plot, centered around the character in question, maybe even from the point-of-view of that character, even if the main story isn’t. Writing prompts can come in handy for something like this, if an idea doesn’t readily present itself. But the general idea is to write out a scene and let that character shine in their uniqueness, and it gives you a better feel for that character.

As I’ve been working on “Pithea” with my sisters, one of them defended a character that was meant to be disliked by other characters and readers alike. My sister said, “He’s tactless, but everything he says makes sense. Why does everyone else always jump on him? They’re all really mean to him.” I was shocked and confused. He was a bully! Rude! Horrible! But as I read through his parts in the story, I realized that she was right. He wasn’t the nicest guy, but the other characters reacted to the man I saw in my head, not the one on the page.

So I spent some time getting to know him. I started with the personality I wanted him to have and asked what in his life could have led him to be that way. Then I wrote out important points about his early life. Over the course of a couple days, I did some writing practice from his perspective. None of this would ever make it into the story, but it was important to me. I shared it with my editing-partner sisters so that they could understand how I saw him. Then I changed some of his parts in the story, based on the deeper understanding I have of him now.

One more thing–while I don’t fill out a pre-made character sheet, I do make sure to write down traits or other important notes about my characters that I realize along the way.

Plan for yourself: Think about any characters you may have that you feel are not very well developed. Or that you feel have confusing motivations. Consider why they are in the story in the first place, and what specific personality or outlook on life their role would require of them. Then go backwards from there and think through why that personality might develop in them. Does he look down on women because he had three older sisters who treated him harshly? Did she become a nurse because when she was younger, she remembered how her sick grandfather’s nurse had brightened his stay in the hospital?

Spend some time getting to know them. Fill out a character sheet if you like and haven’t already, but go further than that. Write more with them than you might plan to for your story. Write as them. How would they describe themselves? How do they see the world? What do they think of the main character? Put them into a conversation with someone else, about something important or just what to have for dinner. How do they talk, react, or move during the conversation?

Make sure to write down anything you learn about your character during this time, somewhere that you can easily refer back to it.

How do you get to know your characters? Do you have a character sheet template that you use for every one? Do you ever struggle to avoid copy+paste characters, or do you excel at creating unique individuals? How many times do the words “character” or “characters” appear in this post?