Writers in the Storm

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September 24, 2014

NaNoWriMo Prep: Brainstorming the Hero Before You Start Writing

Angela Ackerman

Angela AckermanAh, 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?

Happy Brainstorming!

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.

43 comments on “NaNoWriMo Prep: Brainstorming the Hero Before You Start Writing”

  1. Excellent thoughts, Angela. I'm not officially doing NANOWRIMO this year, but I'm using the month to spur my WIP. I thought I'd done a reasonably good job fleshing out my MC, but you've given me some new ways to think about it. I particularly like the Reverse Backstory Tool. Thanks!

  2. So glad you'll find the Reverse Backstory Tool helpful, Carol. I think sometimes backstory seems so huge, writers don't know where to start, or what are the really important things to plot out. Breaking backstory down a bit gives us a bit of a road map, and once we start in one area, it spurs ideas for other elements of backstory too!

  3. Wonderful post, Angela! I have all 3 of your wonderful books and refer to them all the time especially when I'm polishing and trying to get rid of my go to "he/she nodded or smiled". 🙂

    Last year was my first NaNo and I completely pansted and like you mentioned, I ran out of steam smack dab in the middle. Only made 30k. But this year will be different, I took a wonderful plotting workshop from Laurie Schnebly. I know the who, what and where of my characters and I also have a list of all the scenes I need to fill up 55k. I'm really looking forward to getting started and hope to reach The End this time.

    1. Hi Carrie! Very glad to hear the books are good writing buddies!

      I have entered Nano three times, and the one time I didn't finish was because I didn't have enough time to pre-plan before jumping in. I found myself growing more and more frustrated because I didn't know my characters well enough, and so my great story idea just bled out. I know some people write their novel with no intention of doing anything with it, but I am not of that mindset, so I finally grew so disheartened I quit. I was disappointed in myself all right, and learned a valuable lesson about getting enough brainstorming time in!

  4. Angela, as a slow writer, I'd never mess with my process by trying NaNo...but holy cripes, your link to your writer's toolbox is pure gold! Everyone, be sure to click on that link!

    And I can see my craft bookshelf is going to get even more crammed...

    Thanks for including us pantsers in your tips!

    1. LOL, there are some good nuggets there, I hope! Becca and I basically think about what we really need, and then we make it and share it. And I am a bit of a pantser too, but I have to have certain things planned out. I need to know my characters well, that's a given. And I always know how a book will start and end, and a few key scenes in between. But how I get there...that is all part of the pantsing fun 🙂

    1. Nanowrimo is a total blast. I wish I had time to do it this year, but Becca and I are working on writing two books right now, and if I take a month off, it will mess with our timeline too much. I will have to live vicariously through everyone else!

  5. Very timely post for me Angela. I have always dismissed NaNo with I-don't-really-need-it-I-don't-have-trouble-getting-words-on-the-page, but as I read your post I thought, hey, I do have a novel I want to dig into and maybe a real deadline will get me going. So this gives me a month to do the in-depth analysis you suggest - more daunting for a pantser than the actual writing!
    I think I'll document my progress weekly on my blog just keep myself in line. Nothing like going public to add a bit of pressure!
    Thanks for the nudge.

    1. I really enjoy Nanowrimo. My internal editor likes to poke at me as I write, so I enjoy the excuse of a one month challenge to lock him up tight and just give over to the creativity of writing. I will be cheering you on! 🙂

    1. Oh definitely this is perennial advice for anyone looking at starting a novel or story. The more we know about our protagonist going in, the more we can infuse each event with meaning that ties right into his internal journey. Not all novels have a big internal journey, but most do. I also recommend James Scott Bell's Write From the Middle book, as he really nails a key piece of character arc that can make or break a novel. It's a short read, but oh-so-worth it!

      1. Thanks, Angela. You are not the first person to recommend James Scott Bell. I appreciate your comments and your advice. BTW, I gave myself a deadline of the end of this month to finish a WIP and I am """this""" close to the finish line 🙂

        1. Hurray! That's awesome! And yes, JSB is a good teacher--if you ever get a chance to do a workshop with him, take it! Donald Maass is also good (I recommend his 21st Century Fiction for character-building).

  6. Fantastic post and great website. I've "won" Nanowrimo for the last 5 years. I'm passing this year due to refining completed manuscripts. I'll be forever grateful to letting it rip at 1200 words per day, carving out my writing time, and realizing writing takes persistence. I thought the creative part was the hard part until I got to revising, proof reading, and learning the craft of writing. If you have a book in you, and you've procrastinated for years, this is a great way to challenge yourself to "win."

    1. Five years--congrats!! That's amazing, and I agree, NaNo is a wonderful way to go from "wanting to write a novel" to "writing a novel." The sense of accomplishment at winning is a real boost.

      I'm like you--love the drafting, but the real work is in the revision. But then again, the more we think about how everything fits together for our character at the start, the less big picture revision we need to do in later drafts. 🙂

  7. Though I'm a panster, and not usually a plotter, I greatly appreciate the brainstorming advice you've given in the post. I might not get around to writing it all out, but it does set my mind to at least considering the major points I need to hit with the character and story. Thank you!

    1. That's totally fair, Toni! for Pantsers, sometimes all is needed is to think about this stuff, and let it swirl around in the brain a bit. I think the more we think about how things fit together, the more that naturally seeps into our writing. 🙂 Good Luck with NaNo!

  8. Angela, it is LOVELY to see you here at WITS, my friend. 🙂

    I do NaNoWriMo every year because I love the communal writing. I never win, but I always play. The 20-30K I add to my manuscript is a win for me and NaNo is FUN.

    1. Hi Jenny!! The energy of Nano is something that can't be beat. Every year that I do it, I love being part of the excitement. And I think complete it or not, every word written is a huge win! 🙂

  9. Angela,
    If you are not a pantser you really do not know how our writers mind works. I do not pretend to know how a plotter's mind works. I've been through the classes and learned how to outline and to do character development and all that goes with being an organized writer but when I get all that done I'm through with the story. What's left? If after I get the story our on paper I read it and find things I think would enrich the story or reveal something the reader needs to know to get into the book I add it but I have tried it your way and have 3 completed ms in plotted out form that are good stories but I probably will never write them because there is nothing left to write but adding fluff and more words to the story.
    A strange minded pantser

    1. Hi Jo,

      I totally get what you mean, because I used to be a full pantser who is now what I would call an "organized pantser." For me, if I plan out too much, I get the exact feeling you describe--the "why bother writing the story? There's nothing left to discover" feeling.

      I think we all have to pay attention to our writer's intuition, which tells us when it's time to stop planning and start writing. This is different for every writer. I'm glad you've found what works for you through trial and error. 🙂 Happy writing!

  10. I am not doing NaNo this year because of school. November in jam-packed because my final portfolios are due just after Thanksgiving.

    However, this is really helpful and I'll definitely miss doing NaNo.

    1. Brianna, I know the feeling....sometimes November works out, sometimes it doesn't. I know Becca did a personal "nano" in January this year, because that's when the timing worked for her. Very glad this will help for the next time you sit down to start a new project. Good luck with school!

      1. Thank you! I am definitely planning to do some serious writing over my Christmas break. I'll still be working, but my free time will increase tenfold without school in the mix.

  11. I absolutely LOVE NaNo and participate every year! I've got a basic plot idea, but I have definitely not nailed down the characters. The noise of shuffling feet? Yep, that's me. Thanks for the kick in the butt.

  12. Loved your post!
    My first attempt at NaNo netted 30k, 20K short of my goal with no advance preparation. My second go round was at Camp NaNo and I prepared an outline ahead of the event and met my 50k goal! Both are in the revision/rewrite status but I am so much further along after giving my inner editor a month off. Success gives birth to more success.
    Each writer will need to find their level of structure before plunging in but I am not a believer in advance preparation. The caveat is, you can over analyze anything and there is a time to just write! If writing is your passion, the words will come.

  13. […] And while pantsers everywhere may start screaming (Can you hear the lambs, Clarisse?) the fact is, a bit of preplanning is often wise. How much planning is up to you of course, but there are some story and character basics that can really make life easier as you shape your novel. For example, as the star of the show, the more you know about your protagonist beforehand, the better. After all, what he wants or needs will dictate his actions throughout the entire story. Likewise, knowing why he does what he does is pretty critical too, can we agree? (For more on brainstorming on backstory, just zip over to this earlier post.) […]

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