Ah, Fall. Can you hear it, the melody of birds chirping? The rattle of sun-lit gold leaves in the breeze? And of course we can’t forget the click and clatter of keyboards as writers everywhere brainstorm, plot and organize their stories and characters for NANOWRIMO.
Oh...do I detect an awkward shuffle of feet? A side-eye glance? Perhaps it is because you haven’t yet begun prepping for the Big Day. Or maybe it’s because you’re heady with the idea of winging it, determined to let pure creativity spin from your fingertips when the hour strikes midnight on November 1st.
Well, while writing by the seat of your pants is part of the idea behind NaNoWriMo, here’s the truth. Each November, the literary floor is littered with the quivering, sugar-crashed bodies of writers whose plots died mid-steam. Why? Because a novel is still a novel, whether you take a month to write it, or a year. This means that even if you are a Pantser, the more you know about your hero and his motives going in, the stronger the book will be because his actions and choices within the story will have purpose.
Let’s talk turkey. What basic character brainstorming should be done on the hero in advance?
- The Basics: sex, age, job, ethnicity, physical description...whatever amount you need to give him shape (yes, even you Pantsers!)
- Personality: choosing a blend of positive attributes and negative flaws that together make your hero unique and memorable
- Talents, Skills and Quirks: what thing (or things) make your character remarkable and interesting? What special talent or skill does he have that will add dimension to the story itself?
- Moral Beliefs: understanding the compass that navigates his decisions and choices (MORALITY)
- Outer Motivation: what he wants most (the GOAL)
- Inner Motivation: why he wants it (satisfying a great NEED or DESIRE of his)
- Outer Conflict: the forces working against him (like the antagonist) so you can start thinking about how best to provide friction
- Inner Conflict: what inside him is holding him back or hurting his chances for success (his FEARS & FLAWS)
- Damage Assessment: who and what messed with your hero’s head enough to give him emotional wounds that have not healed, and what false beliefs does he carry as a result? (BACKSTORY, WOUND AND LIE)
How do we discover these things?
Simple: Backstory. I don’t mean the sludge of dumpy information that slows your story to a crawl, but the kind that is just for you, the author. Knowing what happened to your character in the past gives you a window into who he is now, on the doorstep of your novel. His history will help you figure out how he thinks and behaves, so you can write his actions authentically and pull readers into the story.
Old experiences, both good and bad, shape a hero, as do people who influence him along the way. Creating a backstory for your protagonist is the best way to create a fully fleshed, compelling hero that will make readers care. Brainstorming is important, even for secondary characters. And while you don’t have to go into as much detail, no one should walk into the story a blank slate. In real life, we all have a past, and our characters should too.
To write a character well, a writer must ask questions. What does he fear most? Who wounded him? What is missing from his life, and what does he need more than anything? What flaws of his trip him up and mess with his life? What strengths are within him, holding the key to achieving what he wants most? It’s all there in the backstory, waiting for you to find it!
Two tools to help you brainstorm character backstory
Character Profile Questionnaire: not your average “height, weight, hair color” type questions...instead, dig deeper into who your character is by asking probing questions about his fears, morals, secrets, emotional wounds, special skills and interests.
The Reverse Backstory Tool: a visual aid to help you see how your hero’s specific attributes, flaws, emotional wound (and lie the character believes about himself), as well as his deepest needs all tie into revealing inner motivation to achieve the outer goal.
(These are simply two of our Writers Helping Writers tools. For more, visit us here.)
Once you know your hero’s strengths and weaknesses (and his fatal flaw), you can plan exactly how to throw a gauntlet of challenges his way in your NaNoWriMo novel, forcing him to face his fears, shed his flaws and rise up to become the hero he was meant to be. (Character Arc, right there!)
Have you participated in NaNoWriMo before? Did you prepare ahead of time or dive in pants first?
Angela Ackerman is a writing coach and co-author of three bestselling resources, The Emotion Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, The Positive Trait Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes and The Negative Trait Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws. A proud indie author, her books are sourced by US universities and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors and psychologists around the world. Angela can be found at the popular site, Writers Helping Writers, which specializes in building innovative tools for writers that cannot be found elsewhere.