Plan your characters

Developing character, by Lara Zielinsky

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This is the third of four posts I am sharing in the lead up to National Novel Writing Month (aka “NaNoWriMo”). Each Tuesday, I will have another few thoughts to share on how to get the most useful story out of your mad dash toward the pinnacle of 50,000 words. These posts will share tips and offer recommendations from my many years as a developmental editor and writing instructor to shape your ideas into something that doesn’t take the six months to a year next year to shape into something publishable. it is my hope that this “planning” is also useful to pantsers – giving your subconscious food for thought before you dive in.

Last week I talked about developing your setting, and the week before that a (loose) plot plan. This week, we’re going to discuss the characters of your story in more physical detail. From the plot plan, you got a sense of what they want and why they want it. Now you have to decide what skills and traits they do (and don’t) have that will help or hinder their goal-seeking. Scene ideas will be generated because, if a character needs to learn a trait, you have to give them either a person or situation that will teach it to them.

Whether you’re writing science fiction, fantasy, contemporary or historical fiction, storytelling is about life. Consider this: What can a character do or learn to do to improve their chances of success?

Characterization as obstacle or opportunity

Characterization for stories provides internal and external abilities that can help or hinder a character’s journey and the goal they seek. If you’re writing a warrior quest, what skills related to the setting’s available tools of war-making is this person skilled in? Are they already leadership material? If the “battleground” is a boardroom, do they have savvy? Can they suss out liars (are they skeptical, naive, or too trusting?)? Do they know how businesses work on a basic level, or at least their business in particular? Are they more “hands on” or the “idea guy”? What will they need to learn and how open to learning are they?

The physicality of the character provides more opportunities for obstacles and opportunities. Are they the “scrawny” kid or do they train every day to be the brawny guy who can handle a two-handed sword with one hand? Are they typical of their people? Taller, shorter? Fatter, thinner? Thinking of descriptions relative/comparative like this is more useful to writing a story than strict weight and height measurements. More often you will need to describe the character in relation or comparison to others, so make your list of physical details use the comparison phrases.

Example: Taller than his mother by 13, Jason, at 25, was now a mountain of a man, thick chest, broad shoulders, made stronger by days hauling nets in his fishing village for the older fishermen who couldn’t any longer, but still knew the seas better than he did.

The positive traits of respect for elders, humility, and an eagerness to learn are implied in the example above through the mention that Jason works for older fishermen who clearly are the ones he trusts to take the boats to the best fishing areas, because he doesn’t know where those are. Does this guy have any negative traits? You should always think of a few, because few readers like character who don’t have some room for growth or changes. Sloth is a negative extreme of relaxed. Being relaxed and calm is one thing, but being slothful, the guy might need to be taught to take more initiative.

So you need to decide on the following things about your character:

  • physical attributes and how they came to have them (for example, “you look a lot like your father when he was your age” or “he has his mother’s eyes”)
  • manners, customs (both societal and situational) and how they came to have them (for example, “educated at Harvard” and “ran away at 14 and joined a gang”)

Generate as much of these through brainstorming as possible. If necessary, look back at your plot planning and consider what traits would best provide opportunity for conflict or success/failure. The key isn’t to list the trait, but to write a sentence describing the character showing the trait. You’ll need that for your NaNoWriMo story’s show-don’t-tell (there are more words in writing a description than just naming a trait, after all). List of traits I’ve used with students who were stuck.

You will also need their attitudes toward others so look into their:

  • sexual orientation, age, education
  • family structure, community connections, including friends (also associates at work who are “neutral”) and enemies (or competitors who are only situational obstacles).

Gather (and write descriptions for) characters

Do you want a particular look for the hero, heroine, and their supporting cast? A lot of writers use actors (called “dream casting”) but be careful to find pictures of them being characters. Grabbing screenshots from their movies or shows is better than red carpet or stills from interview shows (unless your character is a celebrity and you will have scenes like this, of course). Then write a description of the character in motion to keep with the picture. You can post it in your writing space when you’re working on the scene during November.

Advice for including characterization when you’re writing during NaNoWriMo

You don’t have time to “finesse” a lot of description when you’re trying to slam out 1,667 words a day to reach a 50k goal for NaNoWriMo. Part of your words do need to be giving the reader a sense of your character. By using the comparison descriptors you can include those much more often in your writing easily, whether from the character’s point of view, or someone looking at them.

Example: Jason wrapped his meaty arms around willowy Olga and hefted her over the boat’s gunwale. “There you go, milady,” he said, sketching a bow after setting her down. Olga chuckled and her cheeks reddened.

Remember: when in doubt, write it out. A picture may be “worth a thousand words” but NaNoWriMo’s counter only counts words. You can’t include pictures in your verification file.

Leave me your thoughts about creating characters for your NaNoWriMo story. Is there something about characters and characterization that you think I missed? Let me know in the comments. Then come back next week for my final think-piece about writing your way to a successful 50k.

~ Lara

A DOCX (Microsoft Word) version of this file will be included in the full packet available on the last of these four posts. Subscribe to my blog to be alerted when new posts are published. ~ LZ

Published by Lara Zielinsky

I have been writing and publishing for 20 years. I have been an editor of fiction for 15+ years. I am married, live in Florida and work from home full time as an editor.

One thought on “Plan your characters

  1. So helpful, Lara – thank you. I’m going to apply all this like a substantive checklist. One thing else I do for all my characters: I search the web for a photo that is as close as possible to how I am writing them to be. I keep their faces around as I write, reminding me who they are physically as you delineated. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

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