If you’re new to “Summer’s Ultimate Novel,” click here to read the first post (listing ideas in a notebook), here to read the second (choosing the right idea), here to read the third (themes and one-line synopsis of your novel), here to read the fourth (one-paragraph synopsis), or here to read the fifth (research and settings). Whew!
How goes the research? Any luck choosing your setting? Keep reading and researching—you’re doing great!
Today we start on my favorite part of novel-writing: the characters. If you’ve read my blog for awhile, you know that I prefer character-driven stories over plot-driven stories. If we don’t care about the main character, why would we care about the plot? When the character’s values are conflicted and she has to choose between two things she cares about, we must sympathize with her to be invested in the story. We need a likable but flawed character with a noble cause.
Everyday life has conflict—things that stand in our way—and fiction is brimming with it. An easy life does not make for an interesting story. We want the protagonist (the hero or heroine) to struggle against all odds and miraculously succeed. Maybe our hero is supposed to save the world, but he’s reluctant to accept his destiny. Maybe a guy likes a girl, but her self-esteem is too low to believe the truth. Maybe our heroine has the information to solve a crime, but she’s afraid to get involved. The internal and external conflicts are related and dependent on each other. External conflict: a murderer is on the loose and threatening loved ones. Internal conflict: protagonist can stop murderer and save loved ones if she has enough speed/intelligence/courage.
A character has goals (wants, needs, or desires) and is motivated to achieve them. The motivations are explained in the backstory—work that in later, not in the first chapter or two. The character will suffer hardships and sacrifices, feel worried and anxious, and face tough choices. As the story introduces more conflicts, the goals and motivations become more refined.
Let’s break this down. The following steps are inspired by Donald Maass and Susan May Warren (my examples are in italics). Answer these questions:
1. Who is you main character, and what is he/she at the beginning of the story (a defining trait—bookworm, athlete, musician, outsider, etc)? Now think of an opposite trait, and imagine how your character might become that opposite. Eg: Football quarterback starts writing poetry, hoping to someday impress a girl in the Poetry Club.
2. What does your character want most (his biggest goal)? Now think of a conflicting goal. Eg: QB wants to write more poetry, but he also wants to be starting QB. If he joins the Poetry Club, he might lose his QB spot; or his grades might drop too low if he doesn’t have enough time left to study.
3. What is your character’s biggest fear? Make him/her face that fear. Eg: QB fears the football team will find out he likes poetry and call him a wuss. This actually happens when QB’s poetry notebook falls on the locker room floor.
4. What is one thing your character swears never to do? Make him/her do that one thing. Eg: At the beginning, QB swears never to quit football … but he ends up quitting when his teammates alienate him.
5. What is your character’s darkest moment (just when things can’t get worse, they do) in the story? Will he go back to his old ways or change into a new person? Eg: No longer part of the football team, QB tries to join the Poetry Club. But the kids there make fun of him and call him a jock. He feels like he doesn’t belong, and he considers rejoining the football team.
6. What is the lie your character believes? What truth will set him/her free? Eg: QB believes he has to belong to a group to be happy. When he walks out of the Poetry Club meeting, the girl he likes follows him. They go to a local coffee shop and share their poetry with each other. The truth—one person who truly understands you will make you happier than a group of people who don’t. Epiphany!
Okay, so the quarterback-turned-poet idea is a little cheesy. But maybe the examples helped to illustrate the idea. Notice how the questions asked for opposites or contradictions—that’s how you get conflict! The more, the better. Goals + motivation + conflict = fascinating characters.
Once you learn the answers to these questions, you’ll know your character so much better. Furthermore, you’ll have a big chunk of your plot figured out! That’s what I mean by character-driven stories—by knowing your character, you’ll automatically know what happens in the story.
Don’t stop there! Try answering these questions for the hero, heroine, villain, and secondary characters. It might be hard, but your efforts will be worth it when you create realistic characters … and a realistic plot.
If you’d like to learn more about developing characters, try reading this post I wrote back in January. If you need help choosing names for your characters, check out this website which gives the etymology and history of first names.
This week’s assignment: answer the six questions above for as many characters as you can. All the brainstorming will likely result in details and plot ideas—jot them all down in your notebook!
Next Saturday we’ll talk more about characters; they’re so important, they get two posts! Good luck this week, and let me know if you have questions!