NaNo Need-to-Knows: Your Characters

As part of my NaNo Need-to-Knows series, I’m sharing advice on the things you need in order to get through NaNoWriMo. (Click here for a list of links for the ongoing series.)

For the rest of October, the blog part of this series will deal with some writing technique things you need to know in order to create a strong NaNoWriMo Novel.

Since I’m more of a character-driven writer, I’m starting with characterization, but you can sort out the plot-related aspects first, if that’s what you want. (I’ll be starting with those on Monday.)

But what does one have to figure out with regards to characterization? And why is it important?

Who Is Your Main Character?

Do they have a name? What do they do? What do they want? What are their hopes, dreams and aspirations? What are they willing to do in order to achieve those? What are their worst fears? What are they willing to do to avoid those?

Yes, the way a character looks can be important for description purposes, but when it comes to creating a strong story, you need to go deeper than the superficial.

Why?

Because knowing your character means you know what your character will do in a given situation, which in turn can help you drive the plot forward as you write.

Is your character prone to keeping grudges? Then having something happen to make them want to avenge themselves will be a great way to set a strong story goal. AND your character will want to go after that goal.

Want means there are now personal stakes to achieving the goal, which is one of the best ways to maintain tension in a story.

So make sure you get to know your character before you start, or that you create enough opportunities in your writing during NaNoWriMo to explore your characterization.

Some ways to do this exploration before NaNoWriMo:

  • Spend time to create detailed notes as you build your character. I’ve heard the snowflake method is particularly good for this. (As with most plotting-related activities.)
  • Or you can take my approach of assuming a character to be a real person that you need to get to know. This approach might be out there, but I find that, if I treat characters like real people, they tend to feel more real in my writing too. Often, I simply do this by letting them live and make their own decisions in a story as I write, but if I want to prepare ahead, I do interviews with my characters. Yes, I literally act like I’m drinking coffee with a character. I’ll ask them all kinds of stuff, having some real, deep conversations with them, and then I’ll note down their answers. Not only does doing this help you understand a character, but it also helps you nail down the rhythms and cadences of their voice. (Which does come in handy later.)

What Motivates Your Characters?

In simple terms, character motivation is the reason behind the reason behind the reason behind the reason why a character does something. Think of it like peeling an onion. There’s the skin at the surface, but under that is another layer, and another, and another. The deeper you go, the closer to the heart you get.

And if you can get to the heart of any situation with a character, you can use that to strengthen the impact of what’s going on. You’ll also instantly know when a scene doesn’t make sense, if it goes against the character’s motivation.

For example. You have a character (let’s call her Sally), who gives a bitchy response to a snarky comment from another character (Dan).

Sally could theoretically have hundreds of choices about how she’s going to respond to Dan’s sass, and she goes for being nasty. Why? Why didn’t she walk away instead? Or play sweet?

Because she sees every sassy comment as an attack on her person and feels the need to retaliate. Why?

Because she feels like the whole world is out to get her and she needs to fight to survive. Why?

Because she’s seen the hard side of the world and has been in survival mode her entire life.

Why?
….

And this can go on forever, really. The deeper you go, the more information you have to mine. Just three why’s in and we have a very tantalizing clue about Sally’s backstory that can help fill her out as a character. And the deeper you go, the more info you’ll have. So keep asking why.

Another benefit to knowing your characters’ motivations is that you can create some incredibly compelling conflict just by having two characters’ motivations and the resulting desires they have oppose each other.

Characters wanting things are nice. But I frequently want to eat a chocolate. What do they need? What is the thing they would do anything to get because that need comes from the depths of their souls? Those are the truly important things, and if Sally needs something to happen, and Dan equally needs that same thing not to occur, you have instant fireworks. So take the time to learn your characters’ motivations, and then figure out if you can put them in opposition to each other.

It just livens up every scene containing those characters, because now every moment between them matters.

Thanks for reading! How do you approach characterization? Any further characterization advice? 

Next week, I’ll be talking about story goals and inciting incidents, and why they’re important. And on my vlog on Friday, I’ll be sharing tips on how to choose between story ideas for NaNo. If you’re a Patreon patron for as little as $1 a month, you’ll be able to watch my vlog post on Thursday instead. 

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