Creating the characters in your story isn't an assignment to take lightly. It may seem simple enough to name a character and play puppet master with their life, but a character in a novel is much more than a toy. Your readers will identify with the characters you create. Their relationship with your character will make them continue reading.
The first thing to keep in mind is that characters are not born on the first page of a story. Just like people we meet in real life, our fictional characters need pasts, personalities, defining moment, families, and all the facets that make real people interesting. Remember the intrusive games of Truth or Dare the cool kids forced you to play back in middle school? Every good character played those games too. When creating and developing a good character, it’s important to remember that we’re meeting them in the midst of their lives.
So before you begin to write, interview your protagonist. Play a game of truth or dare, but never play it safe with your questioning. Grill your protagonist on their most embarrassing moment, biggest fear, favorite physical feature, guilty pleasure, and worst birthday ever. Did she sleep in an airport on her 16th birthday, or throw up in the middle of a kindergarten play? Can she fit a pinky through the signature gap in her teeth, or did she accidentally cut her own hair into a mullet at age four? Was he the four-eyed nerd who got picked on or the 12-year-old All-star athlete who tormented everyone else? These events, memories, and personality traits shape a person’s life – they should shape your character’s life too.
After painting an honest, elaborate, and in depth picture of exactly who your character is, consider the details from this portrait that will infiltrate the story. Not every answer to every interview question will prove relevant to the story at hand, but many will. Did the kindergarten play incident make her a germaphobe as an adult, or instill in her a paralyzing fear of public speaking? Use this information to propel the story forwards as the protagonist finds herself stuck in an elevator without her Lysol or struggles to get a new job in which she must speak in front of an entire board of directors.
While these situations are slightly frivolous, the same rules apply to serious situations as well. For example, Harry Potter would be nothing without the death of his parents. No matter how big or small, any event has the power to influence a character’s entire life and your entire story – you just need to figure out what that event is.
Understanding your character to the fullest is important. However it is not the only factor you must consider when developing him or her. As writers we often find ourselves creating characters that conform to the stereotypes that we’ve developed over the years. Avoid clichés is a must when writing, because who wants to read the same thing over and over again? Keep in mind these clichéd characters and do your best to avoid them:
- The Gruff Old Person Who Is Really and Old Softy
- The Bully Who Runs When Real Danger Threatens
- The Jealous, Vindictive Woman
- The Rabid Liberal
- The Mad Scientist
All these characters, while endearing during their hayday, have lost momentum when we’ve heard their stories a thousand times over. For example, if you feel like your teen character could replace one of the characters of The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, or any other 80’s movie staring Molly Ringwald, consider them a cliché.
Just like you, your character should be unique. The tips given should help you to create a well-rounded individual with the power to advance the plot. Without them, you have no story.
I can imagine at this point in the series that you are just dying to get pen to paper and start writing that masterpiece. I advise you - hold on a bit longer, and you will create something better than great. You may seem like you’ve got everything laid out, that everything needed to begin this process is on paper. Unfortunately, we are missing one key element in the basics of any story. The setting.
In order to get started, try some exercises to help you work on create a setting.
1. Write about your favorite place. It could be a beach in Florida or a chair at your favorite coffee shop. Describe this place in detail. Explain every aspect of this place, and make the reader feel like they are there.
2. Learn by example. Page through some novels and take note of how the author describes the setting. What types of words are they using? What makes you aware that the story is taking place where it is?
These exercises will help you to begin to understand how to establish your setting within the story. Potentially the most important thing to consider when writing about a particular setting is the historical accuracy. If you want to write a novel set in Victorian England, but have no knowledge of that time period, chances are your novel is going to be awfully hard to write. You will struggle trying to make the novel accurate.
Historical pieces are difficult in the sense that there is so much to consider in regards to the time period. Not only must a writer worry about what events (I say events meaning historical events that actually occurred) are going on during this time period, but also the cultural and economic implications that go along with it. If you are writing a story set during the Great Depression, chances are that unless you’re last name is Rockefeller, you‘re economic status would reflect the times.
It is not enough to understand the history of the events that were occurring at the time. A characters’ dress, speak, and values must all reflect appropriate behavior during that time period. It is essential that if you create a character within a specific time period that they must blend in with their surroundings.
Last week we discussed the importance of character development. Characters are essential to any story however they are not the only fundamental component. Despite their importance, no story is simply description of characters. In order to construct a compelling story, the characters need to be doing something. This is where the plot becomes essential.
I’ve often been told that every line of a story should serve a purpose. If you mention a shotgun resting above the fireplace, then at some point in the story your character had better use the shotgun. That is to say, always move forward. The plot is there to do exactly that - move your story forward. Consider it a basic outline of the events in the story, and understand that the character you developed will react to these events in a certain manner. If your reader knows the gun is hanging up in the living room, sooner or later they will expect the hot-headed husband to grab it off the wall and shoot.
More important than plot is the idea of the conflict. While conflict can occur at various stages and to different degrees in the story, one must be the breaking point. What is the event that changes everything? While you may have a small fight between a wife and husband occur sporadically throughout your story, the moment that the husband slaps his wife across the face during an argument changes everything.
So how do we begin to understand this idea of plot and conflict?
1. Chose 3-4 of your favorite novels, either classics or books in specific genres. Try to identify the hook, or initial compelling event that changes the life of the protagonist and intrigues the reader. This hook should occur in the first several pages or sometimes the first several chapters, depending on the length and type of novel.
2. Create a character using the tips outlined in last weeks post. Give your character a name, and describe them. Once you have an understanding of your character, write a short scene depicting how the character would react to one or more of these conflict points:
- Your character is caught speeding but is mistaken for a wanted criminal.
- Your character goes home to find a window to his house broken.
- Your character sees his/her significant other holding hands with a stranger.
- Your character discovers a secret about the company he/she is working for.
Keep in mind that your characters and the plot go hand-in-hand with one another. The plot is only the skeleton of the story. A true story is formed whenever the reader gets to experience the events in your plot along with the characters. Their reactions are what the readers are reading for.
You’ve decided to write a novel. Simple enough, right? You sit down at your computer, ideas buzzing around your head, excitement so great you can barely hold still long enough to let the computer load. Just as that crisp pixilated paper is upon the screen, you stop.
What do you know about writing a novel?
Luckily, the authors at Writers News Weekly know exactly how you feel. Let’s be honest with one another - how much did you pay attention in your high school English class? Chances are, probably not that much. Consider this series your crash course through eleventh grade English, without all the over analysis of Cather in the Rye.
I know your first question - why do I need to learn about writing?
Writing, just like any other skill that one possesses, takes practice. In order to perfect a craft, we must learn it. You wouldn’t run a marathon without training for it beforehand, would you? If you do, may I recommend ice packs and Advil for your seriously damaged body. Just like writing, jumping in with no training could result in a damaged mind. Those synapses will be fried by page ten. It may seem easier (and quite frankly more fun) to just dive into a task and start writing the next great American novel. But without some knowledge of the craft you are attempting to master, your novel isn’t going to make it past the front door of any publishing house.
I know, I know, you
The first step is to get rid of the clutter in your mind. Enter the first step to writing: Freewriting.
I’m sure this goes without saying, but you don’t practice writing by pumping out a novel. The novel is the culmination of all that practice. So, how do writers practice writing? We freewrite.
Consider this exercise a way to warm-up your creative muscles. It requires little thought, but allows words and thoughts to flow naturally, getting your creative juices flowing. Here’s how to do it. Sit down and write. About anything. Whatever comes to mind, let it flow onto the page. Don’t hesitate, just allow those ideas to flow onto the page. Perhaps they will make sense, perhaps they will look like gibberish. Don’t worry about what it looks like or how bad your spelling is. Freewriting is for you and you alone.
If you find you’re having some trouble, use some of these exercises we pulled from Writing Aerobics 1: Writing Exercises for the Beginning Novelist, with permission of the authors and our own slight adaptations and variations.
1. Look around the room you’re in. What’s catching your eye? The first thing that you notice, stop. Write about it. The only stipulation being that you must mention the object within your writing. If the object triggers a memory, write about it. Make up a story about it. Have the object merely serve as a grounding point from which to move.
2. Pick up a magazine. Flip it open and find a picture of someone. Write about them. Give them a name and a background. Make them ambitious or lazy. Create a day in their life. What happens when they wake up? Do they drink coffee? Do they have tea? Do they shower first? Make your character entirely whole.
The greatest advantage to freewriting is the idea that you are free to do whatever you’d life. This is not meant to be read by anyone but yourself. Don’t hold back - just go. Ready, set…write.