NaNoWriMo is a time for quick thinking, efficient planning, and rapid typing. Each year thousands of writers strive to write a 50k novel in a month- few succeed. When the timeline is shortened it's no surprise that character development tends to take a backseat. However, characters are the emotional connectors of a story. Sure, you could have a fantastic plot full of action, romance, and magic but those aren't enough to make a novel truly great, or publish-worthy. The key to making your novel calibers above the rest is to plan to devote an equal amount of time to your character development as you do your plotline development. In this blog post we'll be demonstrating our technique for creating well-rounded captivating characters.
Why Develop Your Characters?
Think back to your favorite book or film. Why was it your favorite? What made it so awesome? Chances are the first answer that popped into your mind was the characters. A memorable protagonist, complex antagonist, and enticing secondary cast carry the narrative and make your audience want to continue reading your book. It's important to create characters that people not only want to read about, but ones that they can connect to on a deeper level. Emotional attachment is what hooks readers and sells books. Everything else is icing on top of the proverbial cake.
1. Start With The Basics
Looking for a fast and efficient way to get to know your characters? Start by answering these basic interview questions. From there you can expand and build your knowledge to get a big picture look at the type of person your character is.
While participating in Nano the challenge is focused more on getting the words on the page than having fully fleshed out concepts. It's a rough-draft challenge, meaning that you'll most likely have to go back and do a lot of editing post-writing. This is true for character arcs as well. Focus on using the Quick N' Easy NaNoWriMo Character Template below to gain a condensed sense of who each individual in your cast is. From there you can continue to further develop them as needed once the contest is over.
The Quick N' Easy method is one that we've created to help you get to know your characters in a pinch. It doesn't take a lot of time to fill out but the information it gives you is a great starting point for building your characters. You can spend as little or as much time on it as you have- write one sentence answers or paragraphs. Below is the outline of what the template consists of. Grab your FREE download by clicking the image above. Happy Writing!
The Quick N' Easy NaNoWriMo Character Template
Full Name (include any nicknames/aliases)
Hair (color and details)
Distinguishing physical features (ex: piercings or birthmarks)
How do they walk? Is it confident? Timid?
Special skills (like magic or physical prowess)
Describe their personality.
How do they dress?
What items or tools do they carry with them?
What do they put faith in? (can be a religion/deity, another person, etc.)
What embarrasses them or makes them uncomfortable?
How do they handle praise or criticism?
What do they want more than anything else?
Describe how they handle anger, happiness, grief, fear, etc.
What can't they live without?
Where do they live and why?
Who do they live with (if anyone)?
What is their lifestyle like?
Describe their most cherished items.
What is their daily routine?
Who is in their family? Describe them briefly.
What is their birth order? (example: oldest or youngest sibling) What effect does this have?
Are they married? In a relationship? Single?
Do they have any children?
Who do they trust most? Least?
How would a dear friend or relative describe your character?
How would a stranger describe your character?
How do they treat their friends?
How do they treat strangers?
Another Way To Develop Your Characters
Pinterest is an excellent character development tool, especially early on in the brainstorming stage. If you are a visual learner, appreciate having images to use for social media, or simply like to have fun putting together aesthetics and moodboards then this strategy will serve you well. Pinterest allows you to make "secret" boards that only you and your chosen guests can view. You can create one for your book and then have several sections within that can be dedicated to your characters, setting, plotline, themes, and anything else you need to feel inspired.
Here is an example of a character moodboard from our current WIP Blood and Bone.
By using the above methods you've covered physical traits and characteristics of your characters. By now you should have a stronger sense of who they are and the basics of what they are a part of. Now it's time to delve further.
2. Values & Desires:
Turn your attention inward. When you imagine your character, what is it they want? Values and desires are the determining traits that provide insight into who your character is on the inside. These are the driving forces behind why your character makes the choices they make in your novel, so it's important to define what they are before you continue.
To begin, ask yourself the questions below:
What makes them happy? What were they doing? Who were they with? What other details contributed to it?
What makes them feel proud of themselves? Describe the scenario. Who do they share their triumphs with?
When do they feel the most fulfilled and satisfied? What need or desire was fulfilled? How and why did this experience give their life meaning?
What makes these experiences memorable and important?
How would your character define themselves? What qualities would they use? For example, are they kind? Smart? Jealous? Punctual?
Looking to develop this aspect of your characters further? Read the full article here: Character 101: Establishing Values & Desires
3. Building Relationships & Backgrounds
Don't neglect your characters relationships and backgrounds. It's through these relationships, both past and present, that have made your characters who they are. How they were raised, what their family is like, where they grew up, who their friends are, and who they choose to be in a relationship with all reflect who they are as a person. As readers, we want to know who they love, who they hate, and all the natural drama that unfolds from maintaining ever-evolving ties with others.
Here are a few things to consider:
Define What Their Relationship Is & What History They Have Together (If Any)
Use Personality "Flaws" to Dictate Relationships
Avoid Using "Love At First Sight"
Let Their Relationships Have Highs and Lows
You can read the in-depth post on this topic here: Character 101: Building Relationships & Backgrounds
Briefly breaking things down, here's what we mean by each bulletin point.
Define What Their Relationship Is & What They Have Together (If Any): This concept can apply to any relationship, whether familial, friendship, or romantic. Make sure you define the relationships your main character (MC) has to the other characters in your story and what characterizes said relationships. How does your MC react to those that help them? Those that hinder them? How do they treat their family and friends? What if they disagree with someone? How does this differ from how they treat the antagonist?
Use Personality "Flaws" To Dictate Relationships: The flaws we have as people often determine how we react to our surrounding environment. This applies to how we interact with other people as well. If your MC has a quick trigger temper, then they may be prone to mouthing off to their parents and other authority figures. If they are shy, then perhaps they are afraid to open up to their love interest. If they have a cynical outlook on life, perhaps that prevents them from seeing where another more optimistic character is coming from. Play with the possibilities and embrace your character's unique flaws.
Avoid Using "Love At First Sight": If your story has a romance plot, navigate away from the "love at first sight" trope. While love at first sight can happen, it doesn't happen often. It also doesn't leave a lot of wiggle room for things like build-up, mixed feelings, or complications in a story.
Let Their Relationships Have Highs and Lows: Like any natural relationship, no matter how two people get along there is bound to be times when arguments happen, disagreements occur, or feelings get hurt. By varying the degree of which these highs and lows appear within your character's relationships can help make them feel more relatable and real.
4. Defining Motivations
Defining your character's motivations tells the reader why they are following along in your story. It explains why your characters are making the decisions they choose to make, and it keeps their overall story consistent. No matter what happens during the course of the narrative, you should be able to trace all the decisions your characters make back to their primary motivation.
There are 3 steps to defining your MC's motivations:
1. Create their backstory:
If you've been following along this month, you'll already have your backstory to refer back to. If you're new, take a few moments to brainstorm why you're character is where they are today, as opposed to somewhere else. Choose from the list above which extrinsic or intrinsic motivators influence your characters. Then ask yourself these questions:
Why does my character have this intrinsic/extrinsic motivator?
What outside factors/people have influenced this desire?
Who stands in the way of your character achieving their goal?
How far will they go to accomplish it? Where do they draw the line?
2. Outline their goals:
After you've identified their motivators and created a bit of backstory for them, think about their dreams and goals. This shouldn't be hard, as there should be indicators from your character's backstory that you can use while answering the next set of questions.
What are their dreams/goals?
How do they plan to accomplish their dreams?
What do they hope to gain from this achievement?
3. Identify their limitations:
Everyone has parts of themselves that they wish they didn't. Recognizing what limits your character has to work with (whether they be mental, emotional, or physical) sets the stage for you as the writer to learn how to challenge them best. You character is going to have to face these limitations head-on in order to succeed. They're going to wish that they didn't have to get past these obstacles and at times it may seem like their flaws will keep them from their goal altogether. If you can assess why they want to get past these obstacles, their reason should be their motivation.
What limitations do they have that may stand in their way?
How are they going to get past these limitations?
What will they need in order to get past these obstacles?
How does your character feel about each one of their flaws?
For more information, read this article: Character 101: Character Motivations
By using these 4 steps, you can build an amazing cast of characters for your Nano project (or any other novel).
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