NaNoWriMo is over but that doesn’t mean you have to stop writing. Whether you’re looking to continue your WriMo stories or start a new project, these notes on characters can give you a fresh approach to the task. In the All About Characters session at this year’s James River Writers Conference, Philippa Ballantine and Lydia Netzer, led by Lana Krumwiede, used the analogy of an office full of employees (your characters) to illustrate the various issues writers, as the boss, can run into when creating convincing characters that get the job done.
Boss Challenge 1: Motivating your Employees
- Know what your employees want, what they’re ultimately after, and what they’re comfortable doing.
- Make your employees work toward a prize/goal line. You may already have something genius in mind for one of your characters to say or do in the near future. Have all of their actions propel them closer to that winner of a line. Make those employees work for you because that line or event could be the aha moment, the turning point, or the profound message your novel depends upon. If any of you are familiar with the FX show “Archer,” you know that its main character, Archer (go figure), always says, “I had something for this!” when something dramatic happens. The ongoing joke is that he many of his actions are simply to get to the moment when he can say the clever comeback he planned. When the time comes, he never remembers. The moral here—make notes of those prize lines so when you finally come around to an appropriate place to write it in, you don’t forget what it was and your characters don’t pull an Archer. (If you go to look up clips of the show, be aware that it’s pretty explicit and NSFW.)
- Characters can say what you can’t say to people in real life. Treat yourself.
Boss Challenge 2: Setting Goals for your Employees
- Travel with your character and follow their goals. Rather than constructing what you think that character might want, consider their dreams as if they were a close friend in real life, someone who self-motivates, rather than an extension or creation of your own mind and goals. Rather than asking, “What would I do if x,y, and z happened?” ask, “What would he/she do if x,y, and z happened?” In this manner, your characters lead the adventure and you join the ride (instead of shuffling the characters like pawns).
- Don’t know too much too soon. Just be with your characters. Characters are not pre-decided automatons. They grow. This will be easier said than done for those of you who are not discovery writers. Even if you like to make plans and outlines before writing, you can still allow your characters to grow outside of the rigid scaffold of your outline. Always remember an outline can change. If the character, as your employee, is not doing the work, change the circumstances or change the character. You’re the boss; it’s OK to change your mind.
- With the leading characters, the first apparent goal is often not the real goal, meaning the status quo is not always the true desire. Goals can change. For example, it might appear that your female character’s goal is to find a husband (a normal, status quo type of goal to have), but after the events of the novel, your character grows and the goal changes. She realizes that her real goal is to have a means to travel the world, so she dumps the fiancé for his rich, retiree father. Cheesy example aside, you see what I mean.
- If your employees are stuck in a situation, have them do something counterintuitive. This will give them a chance to get out of the situation, spice up the plot with something unexpected, and maybe even come to the realization of their true goals.
Boss Challenge 3: Delegating Responsibility and Empowering the Employees
- Step back from the narrative and let the characters run the show. They will start to speak for themselves.
- Delegate points you want to make as the author to a specific character. That character will say it for you so that author voice does not run the narrative. If your novel is one without a narrator, it is important that you trust the readers and the characters to connect on the important points, morals, symbolism, whatever it is you might put in the plot. If your characters are the only ones speaking in the story, it would be confusing and inconsistent to suddenly inject a narrative voice (your voice) into the mix to point out something that’s going on.
Boss Challenge 4: Keep the Door Open for your Employees
- Talk problems out with the employee. Yes, talk to your characters. Out loud or in print, talk it out. It’s not crazy. You’ll get used to the phrase, “Oh, don’t mind her. She’s a writer.” If the character isn’t performing, rework their tasks to come to a solution. If you try out the new route and the character is still not working for you, fire him.
- Have characters do your bidding until they’re substantial enough to make their own paths. If you treat your characters like babies that you must guide in the beginning, taking them on your path at first, and then letting them become more self-sufficient as they grow, you will end with a character you can easily think about as if they are a separate and real person like I mentioned earlier. As the boss, you have to train them to do the job, but they don’t need to be shadowed forever.
Boss Challenge 5: Embracing Egalitarianism
- Don’t short-change characters that are less like you personally. We all inject a little of ourselves into the characters we create. However, it’s necessary for variety that some characters have less of the author in them than others. For those characters that are less like you, give them special attention. Don’t ignore them. Instead, try choosing traits from a group of other people you know in real life so that they remain realistic and at the forefront even if you can’t use your own experiences in their actions. Don’t mistake this tip as one saying that each character should be written directly from a person you know. Your character Jim shouldn’t be your ex-boyfriend, Craig, verbatim; and your character Lindsay can’t be your real-life aunt trait-by-trait. However, your heroine’s best friend can be your ex-boyfriend’s impulsivity, your aunt’s humor, and your high school math teacher’s odd sense of style. Then, treat this best friend as equally important to the plot as the heroine. She is her best friend for a reason. If there is no reason, no purpose behind you including her in the story, she shouldn’t be there at all. Each character has a purpose.
This session was one of the most helpful I attended, and I hope you can get some use out of the tips as well. Feel free to tell me your favorite tip or an aha moment you’ve had about creating authentic and self-sufficient characters in the comments below. Good luck wrapping up with NaNoWriMo and with the projects that develop through the coming holidays. Holiday time with family and friends always provides great material.
As always, happy writing!
Editor, Proofreader, Red Ink Enthusiast
- At the 2013 James River Writers Conference: Session 1 (marsicowritesite.wordpress.com)
- At the 2013 James River Writers Conference: Session 2 (marsicowritesite.wordpress.com)
- At the 2013 James River Writers Conference: Session 3 (marsicowritesite.wordpress.com)