Ready for NaNoWriMo? With just over a week to go, I hope that your preparation is proceeding steadily. One of the biggest challenges in writing a book in a month is creating appealing fictional characters. Since your characters create your plot, it’s worth thinking about your characters: primary characters as well as secondary.
To get a handle on your characters, start with the basics.
Vital: your fictional character’s basics: name, age, profession and primary attribute
I know some authors like to create page upon page of character bios, and that’s fine — although it’s never worked for me. I like to start with the basics, a fictional character’s name, his age, his profession, and his primary attribute.
Let’s say that we’re writing a cozy mystery, and we want to create a quirky sleuth. Without bending our brain, we decide on:
- Name: Mara Mason, age 26
- Profession: widow, who works from home, as a virtual assistant;
- Primary attribute: intense curiosity.
These kinds of mini character bios take less than a minute to set up, and they give us a head start on our plot. Since her primary attribute is curiosity, we know that we need to show Mara’s curiosity several times in the Setup of our novel’s structure (the first few chapters.) We also know that her curiosity will create problems for Mara in the lead up to our novel’s climax — the final three chapters.
Once you’ve created several of these itty bitty bios for the main players in your novel, your plot starts to take shape. Your task now is to challenge your characters, so they reveal themselves, and kick along the plot.
Let’s look at three tips which will help.
1. Give a character the skill he needs: show how he acquired his skills
As you build your characters and your plot keep watching for things you need to foreshadow, and plant. By the time we’ve created another three or four characters for our cozy mystery for example, we’ve decided on the crime which Mara will investigate: it’s the murder of a prominent man in town. We also know that Mara will break into the house of the victim, and into the home of his mistress too. Mara believes that the police have arrested the wrong man.
House-breaking isn’t a common skill. We need to show how Mara acquired that skill, before she needs it. So we’ll set that up in an early chapter.
2. Show your hero’s dark side: everyone has a shadow
Are you a new author? New authors, and some established authors too, tend to create impossibly perfect main characters. No one is perfect. Give your characters faults. Not little faults, either. No one cares if your heroine is chronically late.
You need to create a major fault for each of your main characters if you want readers to remember the character. Consider Lizzie Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice. She falls for Wickham’s tale, and reads too much into the character of Mr Darcy from her cursory observations of him. Everyone loves Lizzie of course, so her prejudice — judging Darcy on little information — is forgiven and understood.
With our cozy mystery, we could turn Mara’s “curiosity” attribute into a major fault. Everyone has a shadow side, so perhaps Mara’s curiosity could be so strong that it’s almost pathological. The murderer recognizes this, and creates a trap for her.
You can turn almost any attribute into a flaw; just focus on the shadow side of the attribute.
Focusing on the shadow sides of your characters will help you to build your plot too, painlessly.
3. Get to know your character: write his journal
Building characters by playing around with descriptions, character attributes and flaws rarely makes your characters real to you. They’re paper dolls.
To make a character REAL to you, write a character’s journal, in the voice of that character. Writing character journals will not only make your characters much more real to you, it will grow your plot, too.
One point… be aware that you’re doing NaNoWriMo prep. 🙂 You can’t start writing your novel until November 1. I always find that when I’m writing character journals, it’s inspiring, and I want to work on my novel.
When you’ve got great fictional characters, you’ve got a readable novel
Readers read to experience. They want to meet interesting people, with whom they can identify, or not. When you follow our three tips, you’ll create characters readers will enjoy.
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You want to write a novel. Perhaps you can't get started. Or maybe you got started, and then you stopped.You need a plan, broken down into easy steps. This program began as a 30-day challenge which I organized for readers in 2010. Hundreds of writers joined the challenge and completed it. They wrote novels.More info →
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