NaNoWriMo: The Character Question(s)

We’ve talked about your protagonist and antagonist, and your story’s point of view, which includes a narrator who might be a main character. In all these cases, we are discussing characters.

When you first start writing original characters, it’s easy for them all to sound like you. After all, you’re the writer! You are thinking up these people and putting them in situations, and you are creating their reactions.

But you can’t have a story with twenty versions of you. Not that you aren’t amazing, but twenty of any one person is going to get boring and predictable. Even stories about clones don’t portray all the clones as having the same personality

How do you build a character who’s not just you, over and over? How do you create one, three, or twenty unique voices?

The Basics: Here’s the Idea

When you first come up with an idea for a story, the idea has the protagonist, antagonist, and conflict. So to a certain extent, your story idea is going to influence your character’s creation.

If your story idea was born from a character (that is, if you came up with this amazing, compelling person and you want to tell one or more stories about that person), then you fit the conflict to the character. Figure out what story you want to tell about this person and go from there.

If your story idea was born from a plot (sheltered person leaves isolated home to travel into the wider world and helps solve a huge problem), then your character could be almost any gender, race, religion, age, species, or personality. Choosing those facets of your character will shape the story — or the story could shape the choices you make for your characters.

Let’s go back to the Hero’s Journey. The plot is Departure, Initiation, Return. It’s also pretty much the character arc:

  1. Oops, Problem
  2. Leave Home
  3. Learn Stuff
  4. Get Help
  5. Make Mistakes
  6. Do Better
  7. Repeat 3–6 as needed
  8. Be Better
  9. Solve Problem
  10. Come Back Home

This is an extremely generic scenario. Your character could be female (Chihiro from Spirited Away), male (Agent J from Men in Black), genderfluid (Loki from Norse mythology), or nonbinary (Adira Tal from Star Trek: Discovery). Your character could be a child (Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz) or an adult (Richard Mayhew from Neverwhere). Your setting could be middle school, the city, the jungle, Renaissance Europe, the Australian Outback, an uncolonized Africa, fantasy, space, the ancient past, or a weird future. Or any combination of the above. If you want to tell a story about the Old West, then your character can be coming from the East Coast, or even overseas. If you love the ocean, your character can be a sentient fish.

Form Follows Fiction

A Hero’s Journey always starts with a character who has some measure of innocence. (Seniors could go on a Hero’s Journey if they’ve been sheltered all their lives, so don’t think “innocence” has to mean “youth.”) Whatever your setting is, you will need to find some way for your protagonist not to have been exposed to it.

The setting in Star Wars is not just “space” but “The Galactic Empire run by the evil Emperor,” so Luke Skywalker, 19, has been sheltered from it by living on an isolated moisture farm on a backwater desert planet with relatives who deliberately don’t tell him what’s going on. Katniss Everdeen, 16, living in a post-apocalyptic U.S. in the Appalachians, is keenly aware of the Hunger Games which go on every year, but she’s never left her home district. Luke is a farm boy, so while he’s physically strong, he’s never trained in weaponry. Katniss is an expert archer because she has to hunt for food. Luke is optimistic but chafing to leave home and launch his adulthood. Katniss is pessimistic, starving, and deeply protective of her family.

Already you can see how these two characters are different, even though the overall plotline of their stories is similar. They’re even similar in age, but they are not remotely the same person. The setting and the story the writer wanted to tell (grand 1940s-style space opera vs. defeating fascism) shaped the characters.

The Nitty-Gritty

Determining your plot and your theme or tone (which is “the kind of story you want to tell”) creates a sort of general hole your character needs to fill. Now we need to flesh this person out, and make the character rounded and real.

I talk about “rounded” and “rounded-out” characters a lot. What I mean by this term is that the character feels like a real person. The reader feels like the character has a life, an existence, a personality, goals which exist beyond what the plot demands in that moment.

If your protagonist gets a cup of coffee every morning and exchanges hellos with the guy at the deli, and that’s all we ever see of the guy, then Deli Guy is a “flat” character. The character has no purpose or existence beyond handing the protagonist the cup of coffee. In gaming terms, this is sometimes called a Non-Player Character, or NPC — it’s a character which the videogame or the Dungeon Master controls.

You don’t want any of your main or secondary characters to be flat. You want them to have depth. To create depth, you have to think about your character’s internal life and past experiences.

Start with your character’s background.
  • Name
  • Gender identity
  • Age
  • Where was the character born?
  • Who were the character’s parents?
  • Who was the character raised by? (These are not always the same answer, as Luke and Dorothy will tell you.)
  • How does the character feel about their parents? How do they feel about the person or people who raised them?
  • Does the character have siblings? Grandparents? Extended family?
  • Where did the character grow up?
  • How did the character grow up? (Financially, emotionally, sociologically, culturally — whatever might be relevant)
  • What kind of schooling or training did the character have?
  • What languages does the character speak and/or write?
If the character is old enough:
  • What is your character’s sexual and romantic orientation?
  • What are some formative romantic and/or sexual experiences and relationships the character has had?
  • Does the character want to get married?
  • Is the character married? What’s the marriage like?
  • Does the character want children?
  • Does the character have children? How does the character feel about parenthood?
  • Did the character have a bad breakup or divorce?
Think about your character’s appearance:
  • Species
  • Race
  • Gender presentation
  • Height/Weight
  • Eyes
  • Hair (not just head, but all over; color, texture, style, curly/straight)
    • Where does the character deliberately grow or remove hair? Is it personal or cultural?
  • Skin (color, complexion, tattoos, scars)
  • Piercings or other jewelry (What significance do certain pieces have?)
    • Does the character have any body modifications which are meaningful? Personal/cultural?
  • Fingernails
  • Makeup (brand, style, meaning, day vs. night, war paint, covering scars)
  • Perfume/Cologne (spray, oil, brand, signature scent or varying based on event/time of day/season/weather)
  • Ability/Disability
  • Prosthetics/Enhancements
Now think about your character’s personality:
  • What does the character care about most in the world?
  • What is the worst thing that could happen to the character, from the character’s point of view?
  • What are the character’s major strengths?
  • What are the character’s major flaws? (This is really important. Spend time on this. A character without flaws is boring. Even the purest paladin does stuff wrong.) 
  • What are the character’s annoying habits? (Here’s where you can have fun.)
  • What secret does the character hope is never revealed?
  • What is the character’s philosophy of life?
  • What is the one thing the character would never do? What line will the character not cross?

You can write as much or as little as you want in answer to these questions. They are meant to give you the opportunity to think about your character beyond the time frame of your story, to figure out what shaped them. Add in “how the character feels about X” as often as you can. The goal is to make your character interesting and realistic.

That also means “not perfect.” Your characters need flaws. They need to make mistakes. Real people have biases, blind spots, and irrational dislikes. They could absolutely hate ketchup, or refuse to date someone who listens to Insert Band Here because a past boyfriend was obsessed with them.

A lot of these details will not make it into your story. That’s on purpose. The goal is for you as the writer to have these ideas in your mind while writing the character. Finny the sentient fish grew up in a school of siblings and family and friends and is terrified of the idea of being alone — she has no idea how to function as an individual. Will Verge, the town blacksmith, is unmarried and rarely goes to the bar after work because he prefers to keep to himself — he doesn’t want anyone to know he used to be Guillermo Verga, and is wanted by the mob. Your character never has to say those things out loud. You just have to show how Finny is always looking for some other fish to hang out with, and when the pastor asks if there’s a Mrs. Verge, Will snaps at him to stay out of his business.

If you’re struggling with some of the questions, you can think about it and come back to it later. You can also be inspired by real people you know: your uncle’s nervous laugh, Grandma’s hearing aid, your best friend’s catchphrase, that one girl in school who always had to match her lipstick and her binder, the guy at the grocery store with the waxed mustache and beautifully braided hair past his butt.

Putting the Pieces Together

Now you have a detailed, rounded character. How do you fit this person into your novel?

Remember when I said your plot had a character-shaped hole in it? Here’s how you match the two up.

Conflict is defined as:

  • What does the protagonist want?
  • What will the protagonist do to get it?
  • What will the antagonist do to stop the protagonist?

And a character’s arc can be very loosely summed up as:

  • Want Something
  • Do Stuff to Get It
  • Learn Something
  • Change

Keeping the general details of your plot in one mental hand, and your rounded character in the other, work out these details, again taken from Randy Ingermanson:

  • Write a one-sentence summary of the character’s storyline.
  • What is the character’s motivation? (What do they want abstractly?)
  • What is the character’s goal? (What do they want concretely?)
  • What is the character’s conflict? (What prevents them from reaching this goal?)
  • What is the character’s epiphany? (What will they learn? How will they change?)
  • Using all that, write a one-paragraph summary of the character’s storyline.

Again, these are general tools. Remember when we created a rough outline for your story and you could see where your Three Disasters and an Ending were unbalanced? These checklists can help you see where your character is underdeveloped, or you’ve put in two contradictory ideas you have to untangle. Writing out explicitly what your character wants can help you to keep it in focus whenever you are figuring out what your character needs to do in a given scene, even if the character never says it.

So you’re going to think about this character you have carefully assembled, this person you have created, and the person’s narrative arc, and with this in mind, go through your outline (or even your manuscript, page by page) and see if the plot choices you originally made still work with your newly polished character.

Does this mean you may have to rewrite chunks of your story? Yes. Large chunks? Quite possibly. But part of the NaNoWriMo exercise is that you are getting a first draft on paper without overthinking it, and when you write at high volume without editing (and sometimes without planning), part of the “first draft” process is to go back and tear your book apart to look at the pieces and reassemble it so it works better.

Fiction Follows Form

At the beginning of this post, I said that your story could shape the choices you make for your characters. As you are working through your plot with your rounded, realistic character, you may realize that what you did for one doesn’t work for the other.

Just as we talked about changing your narrative point of view if your original setup wasn’t working, you may also need to change plot points — or character facets — if the two aren’t working together.

If Will Verge the blacksmith never socializes because he’s hiding from his past, you have to figure out a reason for him to leave his smithy and go out into the world. If your original idea was that he was unmarried and had no kids, but was hiding from the mob, you may have to change that: maybe the mob killed his wife, and he left his daughter with a relative and ran to keep his daughter safe, and now he gets a letter from the relative that the daughter got involved with the mob boss’s son and he needs to help her. Or if it’s important to you that he stays single and childless, then maybe other Italian immigrants come through town and he helps the grandmother in the general store because she doesn’t speak English, and a different person in the party realizes who he is and sends a message back to the mob boss that they found him. In one case you are changing character details to move the plot; in the other you are changing the plot details to respect your definition of the character.

Sketch out an outline either way to brainstorm your new plot logistics or your new character background. Does being a widower who never sees his child affect his outlook on life? Does he get furtive letters from her, which will affect his other relationships in town? Does he look longingly at other children in town and then hurriedly look away? Where else could you put in details which would hint to the reader that he has a child he doesn’t see? Or conversely: Are there two or three family groups who arrive together, and some obvious dynamics you can sketch out in a scene or two before the grandmother arrives in the general store? Can you set up that Family A hates Family B and they are only traveling together for safety? Or that the grandson is super-protective of his grandmother and doesn’t want her involved with anyone from the mob, or vaguely associated with the mob, so he’s going to do whatever it takes to remove any mob influences from her life? (which is why they’re in America in the first place?)

You see what I mean. Making plot and character harmonize opens up new worlds of detail you can weave throughout your story to add richness and flavor.

Second Verse, Same as the First

Now that you’ve rounded out your protagonist, go back and do the exercises again for your antagonist (provided that’s a person and not Nature).

It’s extremely important that your antagonist be as rounded, complex, and interesting as your protagonist. Having your main character fight a cardboard cutout is boring. Your antagonist is someone worth defeating, but it should feel like a challenge. Your main character should have a worthy opponent.

One of the secrets to great villains is that they don’t see themselves as villains. They are the hero of their own story. Getting into the head and heart of your antagonist will allow you to make those scenes richer and more resonant. And sometimes it’s the key to the character’s defeat, which your protagonist has to figure out.

Your secondary and tertiary characters on both sides should also get a certain amount of rounding out as well. Don’t surround your main characters with flat sidekicks. (Particularly when “who’s the sidekick?” can be a nice source of tension in and of itself.)

Next time, since you have all these fascinating characters doing cool things, we’ll talk about how to set and describe the action so your readers can clearly envision what’s going on — but without getting too bogged down in world-building or infodumping.

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Images from Orphan Black, Lincoln Rhyme: Hunt for the Bone Collector, Star Trek: Discovery, Marvel, Dreamworks Dragons, Gawain and the Green Knight