Day 6: Characters
Yesterday we spoke about the conflict of your story. I described it as the beating heart. But that beating heart belongs to someone important: your protagonist. Do you have a strong sense of who she is? Do you know her flaws? She must possess some if we expect her to grow in the course of the story.
Today we will get to know your protagonist better and we’ll make sure that she is equipped with the traits that will make her a compelling character who can take on the story’s most awesome responsibility: carrying the character arc.
You may already have a strong sense of who your lead is. If not, K.M. Weiland poses some excellent questions to help you discover your protagonist:
- Whose emotional and physical journey will you be following?
- Who has the most at stake?
- Whom do you find the most interesting?
- Who inspired this plot?
Or–if the plot idea came first–who will be most suited to taking full advantage of its possibilities?
Another useful exercise is to consider who some of your favorite characters are from fiction? Why? Write a list of characters and their traits. Think in terms of not only their strengths but their flaws too.
According to John Truby, the energy that fuels the story is the change that the character undergoes. The change comes about as the character struggles to overcome his weaknesses, both psychological and moral, while accomplishing the action that makes up the heart of the story.
As Libbie Hawker explains “Story is all about internal growth, not external events. It’s a character’s struggle to shed old behaviors or beliefs that have held him back from becoming his ‘true self’—the person he was always ‘meant to be.’”
In addition to a weakness, the protagonist has a need that is involved in overcoming the weakness. The need is something that the protagonist is unaware of from the outset.
Truby cites the example of Clarice in Silence of the Lambs. Her weaknesses are her inexperience, traumatic childhood memories, and trying to thrive as a woman in a man’s world. Clarice’s need is to overcome the ghosts of her past and to gain professional respect.
What are your protagonist’s weakness and need? How does this relate to the conflict of the story?
While the character’s flaws are what will propel the action forward, Donald Maass cautions not to get too focused on the negative traits of the protagonist. She will also need to possess values that make her relatable. Maass counsels to create characters who care, hope, and dream.
Once you have defined these over-arching characteristics of your protagonist it is time to dive in and really get to know her. To do this you might want to create a detailed character sketch (in fact, I recommend doing so for all of your major characters). You could get overwhelmed filling out detailed questionnaires about your character, establishing facts like his favorite color, TV show, and his high school crush.
Keep a mix between the relevant and the irreverent. Don’t go crazy with seemingly meaningless details, but indulge yourself a little bit in establishing the minutiae of the character’s personality, habits, and backstory. Such details can become fascinating if artfully woven into the story.
Donald Maass advocates questions such as these for your character profile:
- “Who first broke your heart?”
- “What’s been your biggest sacrifice?”
- “If you ran the world, what’s the first thing you would change?”
Last fall when prepping my Nano novel, I compiled a list of over 200 questions from various sources on the internet. Here are some of the questions that I found most significant:
- How does your character feel about his mother and father?
- What is the character hiding from himself?
- Describe three cherished items in her bedroom?
- What calms this character?
- What is the character’s greatest disappointment?
- What events affected the way character feels about something important to the story?
Another technique that you might find useful for character development is to use a tool like Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the Enneagram, or astrology to flesh out some of a character’s personality traits.
Have fun getting to know your characters. For me, this is one of the most satisfying aspects of prepping the novel.
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Hawker, Libbie. Take Off Your Pants!: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing: Revised Edition. Running Rabbit Press. Kindle Edition.
Maass, Donald. The Emotional Craft of Fiction. Writer’s Digest.
Truby, John. The Anatomy of Story. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Weiland, K.M. Outlining Your Novel Workbook. PenForASword Publishing.
Here are links to all of the other articles in the series.
Be sure to also check out the 5 Epic Clues to NaNoWriMo Success webinar.