Novel Planning #3 – Characters

In the third part of this week’s series about planning a novel, I bring you a very different way of planning, this time no writing an outline; instead, character immersion. This is quite an appealing half-way-house for those people who don’t like planning but want to get a headstart on their writing, have a bit of a safety net, or simply keep their hand in during October when you’re not allowed to begin writing for NaNoWriMo.  To my mind, it will work best for character-driven fiction (Don’t tell me all fiction is character-driven!) like romances. I can imagine it working well for planning a Jane Austen style romantic epic, or a chicklit beach read. It might also work for a character-driven thriller though, like the Hannibal Lecter books, or any super-hero story.

Identify the main characters in your story. All of them. Let’s say you’re plotting Pride and Prejudice, for example. I’m not just talking about Lizzy and Darcy here, you’ll also need to identify the larger cast – the other Bennet sisters and the various love-interests who buzz about them – Bingley, Wickham, Colonel Fitzwilliam, etc.

For each of these characters, establish the following:

1. Physical Traits

I start here because it’s easiest to define. You might find this is the last element that you work on though, and that’s fine too. Think about things like eye colour, hair colour, hair style, height, weight, dress sense. What do these things tell you about the character? Are they stereotypical? Do they match the character’s personality? Or are they conflicting with that personality?

2. Personality Traits

Is the character headstrong? Likeable? Haughty? Kind? What pleases them, what do they despise? Make these people really interesting, not 2-dimensional and certainly not stereotyped. What sort of job would you imagine them doing (even if they don’t have a job in the story)? What are their flaws and their strengths?

3. Quirks

Make each character an individual with some little things that stand out about them. Do they have a particular way of speaking which sets them apart from the rest of the cast? A verbal tick, or a physical habit? Again, avoid cliches, and anything that’s going to annoy your readers, but think about what makes this particular character just a little different from the next one.

4. Secrets

OK, now’s the time to start digging. What’s this character’s background? Their motivation? Their secrets? What rumours might be going around about this character and in what ways are those rumours true, or not? What would their neighbours / friends / enemies say about them?

5. The Fun Bit

Finally, get really deep into the characters. Think about unusual situations and throw them in – how would they deal with a crisis / rejection / unwanted romantic advances? A man crashing through the window with a shotgun? A woman fainting next to them on the bus?

If you like quizzes (who doesn’t like quizzes?!), go online to a site like http://www.quizrocket.com/ and try out some quizzes on behalf of your characters. You can also google serious personality tests like Myers-Briggs, but it’s just as valuable to find out What Kind of Dog they would be, or Which Member of the Royal Family will they marry? Get the Sorting Hat to choose them a house and if you have any romantic pairings, subject them to a Cosmopolitan-style compatibility test.

The results might be interesting or amusing, but the main point of these tests is that they will ask you questions about the characters you might never have thought about. For example, this What Breed of Dog Are You test asks how you’d react if a friend dared you to go skydiving. Most of these answers will probably never make it into your novel, but knowing your characters back to front will allow them to carry the story when you feel you can’t, and can help you to ensure that the people in your novel are as interesting as they can be.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Novel Planning #3 – Characters

  1. Delilah

    Love this tip! I have a question though. I have been working on a novel for quite some time now. It’s mostly in my head and a few typed pages of character developments and plot outlines. I have one or two scenes written about some of the characters already. Is it wrong that I want to finish it by participating in NaNoWrMo?

    • Hi Delilah. I say a firm and steady no, it’s not wrong. NaNo has millions of rebels (there’s even a special forum for them) who are finishing old novels, editing, rewriting or not even working on a novel at all! What you’ve got already mostly sounds like “planning” anyway, but even if it doesn’t satisfy the purists, most people think NaNoWriMo is about motivating yourself to write, not about fitting a prescribed set of rules.
      If you’re worried, stop by Toronto’s Nano chat for lots of encouragement. Even if you’re not in Toronto, you’ll be welcomed. http://www.torontonano.org/WordWar/

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