Elizabeth: NaNo Countdown – 2 Weeks To Go

We’re halfway through the month of October, which means there are just a few weeks left before NaNoWriMo kicks off on November 1.  In order to prepare for what I hope will be a successful month of writing I’ve been doing a bit of prep-work these past few weeks.

As I mentioned in my first post in this series here, I began the countdown to November by working on the outline for the story I’m planning to write.  As the outline developed, I found I needed to clarify the setting, in order to get a big picture view of how the story will progress.  If you missed it, you can read that post, and the helpful suggestions from commenters, here.

With a general outline and the story setting(s) nailed down (kind of, sort of), I still have a pretty large gap that needs to be addressed before I start trying to put words on the page.  I need to know who these people are who will inhabit the story.  My heroine needs a hero.  My antagonist needs a supporting cast.  And I need to know who that random assortment of secondary characters is and what roles they are going to play.

Piece of cake, right?

Not surprisingly, this week my focus is on:  Character

We’ve talked a lot on this blog about how important it is that characters have strong goals and motivations (we’ll talk more about that next week).  Before getting to that point, however, you need a clear idea of who your characters really are.  The posts here, here, and here provide some practical exercises for learning about your characters.    You can also Google “character worksheet” and find links for lists of character attributes that you may want to think about when defining your characters.  From basic information like name, age, and physical characteristics, to the more in-depth strengths, weaknesses, and experiences, the worksheets can help you develop interesting, believable characters.  An example of a very robust character worksheet can be found here.

Conveniently, while I was randomly surfing the internet catching up on my news-feed recently, I came across a brainstorming idea from a screenwriter friend of mine that I thought would be very helpful.

Exercise:  “Make a list of 100 things you see your main character doing. Before you start to freak out and hyperventilate, I’m not talking 100 scenes or plot lines or settings at this point; no need to get that fancy about it. Just things like taking a bubble bath, swing dancing, slicing onions a certain way, sharpening a knife, pinning on a badge, lounging on the couch, arguing with a spouse, etc.  Not earth shattering stuff; just everyday actions they would take or ways they would act/react to something.” ~ Kari

Obviously this exercise is not going to give you completely defined characters, but it can be a good way to begin to get into their heads.  When you look at the list of things you’ve written down for various characters, you may notice that some very different styles have been revealed.  That can lead to interesting conflicts down the line in the story or, in my case, may help me decide if any of my secondary characters are going to wind up pairing up (of course they are!).

So, what do I know about the characters in my story so far?

Not a lot, but I’ve just started working on them.  I have my heroine (she was a supporting character from the last NaNo story I wrote), but she’s currently lacking a love interest (the front runner seems to be a nerdy guy with glasses but that may change).  I have an antagonist, of sorts, but I definitely need to learn more about him.  Then, there is that pesky cast of secondary characters.  The story starts out with a group of about 12 on a sailing trip, but not all of those will remain for the whole story.  Someone is going to get sick and leave; someone is going to have an emergency and need to go home; one or two may decide they want to stay at one of the stops along the way instead of continuing on with the trip.  I need to figure out who all those “someone(s)” are.

I know what I’ll be working on this weekend.

So, how do you get to know your characters?  Do you “learn as you go” or do you define them up front?

8 thoughts on “Elizabeth: NaNo Countdown – 2 Weeks To Go

  1. My main characters, I think through before I start. I want to know as much as possible about them before I begin, so that when they start to do things, their actions have cohesion. But secondary characters are a hoot. Sometimes I know who they are, but sometimes as I write, I mention that someone exists, or their function exists (like “the waitress”), and then after another mention, I realize they want into the story. And then, poof! There they are. That’s always fun, finding the surprise characters you didn’t know you’d need until they show up.

    • Kay, I love the image of characters showing up and demanding to be let into the story 🙂

      I try to get my main characters nailed down before starting to write, but I usually don’t know all of the secondary characters I will need until I get in the midst of the story. This time around it is a *little* different, since I am starting the story with a fairly large cast that I know will be there. I’m sure there will still be strangers popping up, and a few of those initial cast members may turn out to be duds.

  2. Pingback: Michille: Getting Ready to NaNo – Eight Ladies Writing

  3. The character development approach that has most impacted my writing is Lisa Cron’s Story Genius approach (Jilly, Neen, maybe a few others? and I have all gushed about it at various times here on the blog). Her goal is to have writers organically grow the story out of the lives (including the dreaded pasts!) of the characters. It involves writing whole scenes to identify things from their past that have formed their beliefs, with the idea that they have to overcome those beliefs in order to arc and change through the events of the story. These scenes often won’t appear in the story (although snippets might), but they are the ‘third rail’ powering the narrative.

    It’s an amazing way to approach story. Even if you never use her exercises or approach, just reading the research she’s done about writing and the brain might give you a whole new perspective on writing and storytelling. (Warning: she HATES those ‘make a list of xx things about your character’ exercises, so if that approach works for you, her approach might not. Or maybe it will make a nice counterbalance.)

    • I’m totally with you on Story Genius, Nancy. It’s completely changed the way I view my characters, and the way I think about what they do and which direction my story goes. I think you got to hear her speak at NJRWA…I did on the Cruising Writers cruise I recently went on. Yeah, she’s definitely not interested in the list-type stuff for characters, but I can tell you that the backstory “misbelief” I dug up about Nate and Susannah was absolutely astounding and it’s serving such a fertile ground for both the conflict of my story as well as the arc. It’s how I will approach my characters from now on.

  4. I’m definitely in the learn-as-you-go camp. The characters in my head are borne out of whatever news, media or real-life things that I’m immersed in, usually. When I get stuck, random Google Image searches can be hugely helpful. One of my characters, Bunny Blavatsky, developed over the course of an afternoon when I was looking up something or other, and stumbled over photographer Bunny Yeager, who had taken some pictures of a woman in cheetah prints. So, there I was set with Bunny and an antagonist. All I needed was a story . . . .

    • Michaeline – Speaking of Bunny Blavatsky . . . . it would be lovely if she made an appearance one of these days (hint, hint). I’ve wound up with a few characters as a result of some random news or real-life thing. Similar to your case, however, that sometimes leads to characters without a story. Equally annoying is fleshing out a character and then finding he/she doesn’t really belong in the story they were meant for. I have a few characters in “limbo” waiting to be matched up with the right story. Maybe they’ll get together on their own and figure things out 🙂

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