Nanowrimo prep: Making characters

We found out this really simple rule… We can take these beats, which are basically the beats of your outline, and if the words ‘and then’ belong between those beats, you’re fucked, basically. You’ve got something pretty boring. What should happen between every beat that you’ve written down is either the word ‘therefore’ or ‘but.’ Right? So what I’m saying is you come up with an idea and it’s like okay ‘this happens, right? … and then, this happens.’ No, no, no! It should be ‘this happens… and therefore, this happens.’ [or] ‘this happens… but this happens.’
Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of South Park.

You don’t have a story without character. This sounds obvious, and you might think that what I mean is that a story doesn’t exist without people for the plot to happen to, but that’s backwards. Plot doesn’t happen to characters. Characters create plot.

Certainly it’s possible to write a story where the plot happens independent of the actions of the characters, but that story is going to have a fatal flaw: the characters won’t develop and grow and achieve their character arc, since nothing they do has any effect on what happens to them. Unless the characters can make choices, suffer the consequences, and learn from their mistakes, they’re never going to change. And that, of course, is the point of the story: your protagonist is a different person at the end of the story than she was when the story began.

In other words, if you presented your protagonist with the same choice at the start and end of your novel, she should make a different choice the second time due to the stuff she’s learned over the course of the novel.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. That’s the character arc, and first you need to come up with your character’s starting position. What does your character want? What is her driving motivation? As the curtain rises, what is your protagonist’s number one desire, and what is she doing to achieve that? Why are we even reading about this character in particular and not about someone else?

And while you’re considering that, what is your antagonist’s desire? The key factor that makes your antagonist an antagonist is that he is going to get in the way of your protagonist achieving her goals.

Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

— Kurt Vonnegut

1. Your protagonist has a desire, and a specific idea of how to achieve that desire (not necessarily what they’re going to do during the story, but what they THINK they’re going to do during the story).

2. Your antagonist has a desire, and a specific idea of how to achieve that desire, and their actions to achieving their desire are going to block your protagonist from their own goals.

It’s this conflict that’s going to kickstart the plot of your novel. Each subsequent scene is going to lead from the choices your characters make. If your plot requires characters to do things they’d never normally do, the story is going to feel forced and artificial for the reader. Everyone’s seen movies or read books where the characters act exceptionally dumb just so the next plot event can happen. It’s frustrating, and kicks the reader out of the story. Don’t do that. Instead, remember these three questions:

What does your character WANT?
What does she DO to meet those goals?
What do her actions ACHIEVE?

Every scene in your novel is going to answer these three questions, though the answers will change from scene to scene. What’s important is that they have answers, so the scene keeps moving forward. If she doesn’t want anything, then she won’t be taking any actions. If she wants something but doesn’t do anything to get it, that scene has no purpose and shouldn’t be in the story. If she wants something and does something to attain it, there will always be some sort of consequence to her actions, positive or negative.

Before this gets too long, here’s a list of questions you should ask for each main character in your story. I’ve cobbled this together from Chuck Wendig’s post on making characters. Forget the questionnaires that ask your character’s favorite color and most hated band. These are the questions you need to answer before you start your story:

What does the character want?
What does she do to get it?
What consequences happen as a result?
What does the character fear most?
What does she think the solution to her problem will be?
What is her greatest character flaw?
What is her personality, in one sentence?
What is her internal conflict?
What is her external conflict?
How is she connected to the other characters?
What is she good at?
What is she bad at?
How does she change over the course of the story?

If you can answer these questions, you’ll start to have an idea of how the characters are going to interact and what conflicts are going to come up between them. Your plot will develop from there.

Next time: setting

Nanowrimo prep: Outlining your novel


Nanowrimo is a month and a half away, and while technically the rules state that you can only start planning a week in advance, I say fuck the rules. If you want to end November with a novel you can actually do something with, you need a plan.

Nanowrimo calls them planners and pantsers (as in, flying by the seat of your pants), although I’ve heard the latter called “organic” writers too. The idea is that there are two kinds of writers: those who outline, and those who make it up as they go along. There are benefits to both sides. In 2004 I started the month with absolutely no idea of what I was going to write about, and every word I wrote was a surprise to me. Where does the first scene start? Well, let’s pick a random room and say it’s in a bathroom. A bathroom where? In a church. What’s the character doing there? He’s at a funeral. Why isn’t he at the funeral itself? Because he doesn’t want to see his late best friend’s family. And so on. I love discovering the story at the same time the characters do. You don’t know what’s behind a door until you open it and find out what your brain has come up with.

Of course, pantsing means you end up with a massive, meandering novel that takes a lot of false turns before it finds its way, and that means there’s a lot of editing in your future. If you’d rather end up with something more coherent, you should have an outline. This can be anything from a vague series of scenes you know you need, to a specific scene-by-scene analysis. In 2009, I decided to outline my novel to within an inch of its life before I started. Oddly enough, this didn’t work very well. When I actually sat down to write, all the joy had been sucked out of the process. The characters felt wooden. The dialogue seemed unnatural to me because it couldn’t flow naturally when it had to follow a strict route. My novel ended up much, much shorter than it was supposed to, because I’d followed each point in the outline without any improvisation or tangents.

Over the next few years, I figured out how to have a plan that didn’t wring the fun out of writing. Here are a few suggestions for routes you can take. You’ll probably have to try a couple before you see what works for you.

The tentpole method:

You know a few key scenes in advance, and all you have to do is figure out how the characters get from one to the next. At the very least, the scenes you need to know should be the inciting incident (the event that sets the novel in motion) the turning point (what makes the protagonists start acting against the antagonist instead of just reacting) and the resolution (the final showdown or the event that resolves the plot). As you write, you’ll probably figure out more scenes that you need in order to get from A to B to C. I like to keep a running list of what I know I need to include, deleting the ones I’ve done and adding the new ones I’ve realized I now need.

The snowflake method:

This one’s a pretty famous method of outlining. Basically, the idea is that you come up with a short, one sentence summary of your story; then expand that to a paragraph; then expand each sentence of the paragraph to a paragraph of its own; and so on. Follow the link above to read the detailed explanation. If you’re someone who likes really specific outlines, this might work for you.

The story structure method:

Larry Brooks came up with this on I like this one a lot, and I’ve used it a few times. It’s a very formulaic way of plotting your story. Roughly, the scenes you need are:

  • the opening of your story
  • the story hook within the first 20 pages, that makes your reader get invested
  • the first plot point at the 25% mark of the story, where important information is revealed that changes what the hero knows
  • the first pinch point, where the antagonist shows their strength and acts against the hero
  • the mid point at the 50% mark, where the hero changes from reacting to acting
  • the second pinch point, where the antagonist shows that they have learned from their past mistakes and are stronger than ever before
  • the second plot point at the 75% mark where the final information needed to solve the problem is revealed, and the hero finally has everything they need to go against the antagonist
  • the final resolution

There’s a lot more to it than that, and I recommend you check that out at the link as well.

So with that in mind, what method do you think you’ll use?


Next time: character development.

The time I figured out food was trying to kill me

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Back when I was a kid, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to drink milk. The taste was nothing special, and since it made my lips and tongue itchy and made it hard to swallow, what was the point? Ice cream and cheese were fine because the taste made up for the discomfort, but why drink milk?

When I was around age fourteen or fifteen, the little town in Maine where my family always went for a week in the summer had a very sudden and very dramatic boom in the soft serve industry. Every business in town sold soft serve, and we went to a different one every night. I remember at the end of the week, as I was finishing a chocolate and peanut butter ice cream shake, I began to think that maybe the chest and neck pain wasn’t really worth it.

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