The Journey to NaNoWriMo 2013: Creating a Character

In my last post, I stopped to smell the roses. I mean, I discussed plotting a NaNoWriMo novel. I'm now going to talk about something much more fundamental. Something far more important:

Characters.

No matter how absolutely fantastic!!!!  you believe your plot concept is, your story is nothing without characters. Without an extremely important character — your main character. Your lead. The person this story is all about.

No matter how strong you are at worldbuilding or plotting, if you don't have at least one strong character backing these things, your story will likely feel lifeless. It took me a long time to figure that out, truth be told. Apparently, readers simply don't care how clever I think I am. they want to read about how clever my characters think they are.

Then they want the characters to face the smack down, the hardships, the humor, and everything else that goes into being alive. They aren't interested in me when they read something I wrote. They're interested in one, two, or maybe even three characters. If I'm doing my job, they're interested in all of my characters.

But, there is one character whom outshines the rest. This one person needs built, by you, for their story. I can hear sticks being clattered against the cage bars now. Just one?

Why just one? Stories are about many people! This isn't right, this isn't right….

You're right. It isn't right. But, if you learn how to build one character, you can build many characters. I'm not going to hand you a character out of my pocket, give it to you, and you're good to go. However, what I am going to do is tell you how I create a character.

This method may not work for you. I really believe it won't work for most people. But, someone might take a look at this and think, “Hey, I can do that…”

Then this effort will have been worthwhile.

Writing a novel during NaNoWriMo is different than writing a novel intended for publication. Sure, a NaNoWriMo can be polished for publication. It just takes a lot of work, in my opinion. Especially you're the type of person who needs this sort of article instead of the type of person who wants to learn more.

Creating a character for NaNoWriMo can be difficult. Writers often don't feel like they have the time to get to know the character they're working with. And they'd be right. They don't. 30 days isn't a whole lot of time to get to know anyone. Plotting won't let you get to know anyone, either.

The best you can do is assign trope types, give them a bit of backstory to work with, and pray you can create a living person on your page when you sit down to write. You want someone who feels alive to your reader.

Fortunately for us, NaNoWriMo is a great time to make mistakes and get dirty, without the pressure of someone looking over our shoulders and telling us our characters are wrong, wrong, wrong.

My tricks are pretty simple.

First, pick trope types founded on reality. This means you'll have to do a little research. Watch people in a park. Watch them while on the bus. Watch them in school. Watch them.

Don't just watch, however.

Listen. Learn. Understand.

Humans are complex beings. Like horses, we're herd animals. We prefer being in social environments. Those of us who are introverted might not be comfortable in large groups, but many of them take comfort in being near someone — they just prefer that someone to be a quiet presence instead of a force of nature.

We're as varied as the stars in the sky. Some of us are sick in body. Others are sick in the mind. Some are quiet, while others are loud. We may bristle at the thought, but we do fit into stereotypes.

That's where I usually begin when I create a character. I look for a stereotype. Then, I add an additional stereotype and see what I get.

Sometimes, I'll get something like a talkative introvert. How does that work, exactly?

You could have a character who is so afraid people might discover their true self, that introverted, quiet bit of them, that they hide it behind a chatty exterior. They don't want anyone to know who they really are, so they bury it beneath wiseass comments.

Harry Dresden, in many ways, is a talkative introvert. He doesn't want people to see who he is, he doesn't want to involve too many folks. He puts up his walls, his boundaries, and uses his wiseass comments to mask his secrets and push others away.

He intrigues me because of this lone-wolf trope, coupled with someone who opens his mouth and lets witty, insulting commentary fly free. A talkative introvert. A funny, insulting talkative introvert.

And I like it. It's such a contradiction, but it's a believable contradiction. He's like an onion, and that's what makes him a good character.

Harry Potter is very similar in some ways, except I sometimes feel he is forced to be an introvert, but he'll take what he can get — and when he gets going, he gets going. He's also a bundle of contradictions in many ways.

It works, and I like it.

Some characters are simpler. Frodo, from Lord of the Rings, is a very simple character. He's really just your average person who is forced into a situation far bigger than they are. Though, his trope type, I'm afraid, is best described as “Hobbit”. They're a special bunch.

All three of these characters have something in common: They evolve. They start out as a simple trope type, and they grow. (Some of them grow on you, like a wart that just doesn't want to go away…)

They change.

That's a fundamental part of building a character. Characters are fluid. Sure, you may start with a trope type or three, but they'll do things. They'll experience things. They'll make choices. They'll face the consequences of their actions and words.

They'll change.

It's nothing to be afraid of, but it's something you must be aware of. Characters change — and so they should. Real people do, each and every day. Sometimes the changes are hardly noticeable. Sometimes they're drastic.

But it happens all of the same.

NaNoWriMo is a good time to let your characters grow and change, and to get used to the idea that they may not end up like you expected.

Let your characters evolve beyond your initial vision. There is nothing wrong with a character who decides to do things their way. Sometimes, we just don't anticipate a consequence. And we don't anticipate the character's reaction to that consequence they've faced.

Roll with the punches. It makes your characters far more real if you manage to let them be their own individuals.

Finally, your characters are not you. They aren't voices in your head. They're creations. Your creations. Things you came up with. There is a fine balance between ‘letting characters become their own individuals' and thinking they're talking in your head.

One's a creative process. The other is a psychological disorder.

Always remember that while your characters should change and face consequences, you have full control over what they say or do — so long as you play by the rules of their personality types. That's what picking their trope types is for. It is to let you harness personality types without having to create every nuance of the character. What you do need to do, however, is ask yourself, “Is this really something a talkative, insulting introvert would say?”

Then ask yourself, “If my talkative, insulting introvert does say this surprisingly compassionate thing, does it reveal a layer of the character or go outside of his character?”

You want these little things to reveal a layer. When a character shows his or her true colors, then you can say, “My character is a talkative, insulting introvert, but underneath, he is actually….”

My point here is simple, although the problems it creates are not. Characters are like humans (most of the time) — they are complicated, and layered like onions. When you build a character, start simple, start small.

Let the world, the story, and their reactions and decisions reveal the layers beneath the surface.

You don't need to plan them out completely in advance. Just give them a few rules, and then follow those rules.

Let them grow up as they will. This is something plotters often have trouble with, because it is very easy to set railroad tracks up and have the characters hop off the train and go riding off into the sunset.

Sometime earlier, I mentioned I followed several tricks to create a character. The second one is one I sometimes wince at, even now.

Force your character(s) to face the consequences of their action. Plots don't happen to characters. Characters create plots.

Your antagonist is trying to outwit your protagonist. The protagonist, and others, are the ones who face the consequences of the antagonist's actions. The antagonist should also face consequences for their actions as well.

Your protagonists is trying to save the day. But, they should face the consequences of their actions as well. That's right, they're getting hit from both sides of the fight. Their actions and the actions of others are impacting them.

That's what makes it fun.

Don't make things too easy on them. Easy isn't fun. Easy doesn't carry weight. Easy doesn't force characters to adapt, learn, grow, and evolve.

Above all, remember that your character isn't really a person. It's okay to abuse them.

If you're interested in learning how to track your character information, I recommend you read my post on creating a character's story bible.

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