This week I continue my wild and crazy adventures with the Story Plan Checklist. Go here if you missed Part 1 of Novel-Planning. Another disclaimer: The method, steps, and ideas belong to Karen Wiesner (the sarcastic comments belong to me). You can learn more by buying her book, From First Draft to Finished Novel, or the January issue of Writer’s Digest, OR by visiting their website (which includes downloadable story plans, worksheets, checklists, and more!). I’m new at this, so I cannot guarantee that it will work for you. Consider yourself warned.
With the formalities out of the way, let’s get down to business!
Part 2: External Monologues
1. Character introductions. Hello, main character, what’s your name? Do you have a job, or are you a full-time student, or a bum? In this part of the checklist, just list the characters’ names and roles in the story (Hero? Heroine? Villain? Sidekick? Etc etc). As Wiesner says, “Each of your main characters will have particular skills that are shaped specifically for the plot.” To use my story as an example—my heroine, Kari, just finished high school and wants a summer job to give her experience in field biology. The only job she can find will end up changing her life forever.
2. Character descriptions from outside viewpoints. Keep in mind that the checklist is for your use, so you can manipulate it however you want. The main point of this step is to discover the impressions your main characters make on those around them. What impression will Kari make on Blaine when they first meet? I can imagine, and it makes me laugh! I could also include Blaine’s description of Kari’s physical appearance… but that would be for my use only, since I’m writing Kari’s first-person POV. If you’re writing third-person omniscient, your main characters are likely described by other characters at some point in the book. So you can either write the most basic impressions, or “you can describe the main characters from each individual viewpoint in the book.”
3. Character descriptions from self viewpoint. Do you see yourself the same way others do? I know I don’t. And no way would Kari describe herself the same way Blaine would describe her. So you can write a short first-person profile in which the character talks about herself. Wiesner says this gives “a strong sense of who your players are with both outside and inside descriptions.”
4. Character occupational skills. A cohesive story connects all the small details. Our characters’ interests, hobbies, or jobs should be essential to the story, all wrapped up with their personalities and motivations. Kari enjoys working outside with animals, so she takes a field tech job handling turtles. Through this job, she’ll discover things about herself that she never knew before. According to Wiesner, “the character’s skills should be directly related to either her internal or external conflicts.” That is, make every detail count.
5. Enhancement/Contrast. In the quest to create a unique character that readers will relate to and root for, we need personality traits that are flawed but well-liked. Definitions by Wiesner: “Enhancements are the subtle, balanced or extreme elements that complement what the writer has already established… a contrast is an element in opposition to what the writer has already established.” In other words, enhancements make a character uniquely stand out. No one would want to read a story about me because I’m too average—it would be a boring story. But if later in my life I discover I have super powers to save the world, then perhaps I could write my autobiography (unless publishers thought it too overdone!). But I couldn’t be a perfect, flawless superhero—much too dull. I would need some sort of emotional baggage, pessimism, roughness, or fear… anything to provide conflict.
As Wiesner explains, “One way to develop a main character is by introducing another main, secondary, or minor character who either enhances or contrasts his personality. A character who’s an extremist will need someone to soften him.” You’ve probably noticed such character tropes in fiction before, even if you didn’t give them much thought. For example, take serious Harry Potter with his penchant for defense against the dark arts, and balance him with book-smart Hermione and comic-relief Ron. Main characters often have best friends or love interests who push them to go beyond their comfortable limits. Even a villain can be an excellent way of contrasting with the hero/heroine (Harry and Voldemort, who were similar in several ways, differed in their views of love). Carefully choose traits for your characters—traits that enhance, contrast, or advance your story.
Well, I didn’t finish Part 2 (we still have symbols and settings left), but I think I’ll stop here and pick it up next week… which makes this a very character-rich post. How do you develop characters for your stories? Do you fill out character sketches or charts? Write profiles or POV snippets? Or do you have other methods for enriching characters?
Have a great week, everyone!