NaNoPreMo 2013 – Characters

a network of relationships  driving character development

a network of relationships driving character development

This is the second post in a series about preparing for NaNoWriMo. If you want to attempt NaNoWriMo without any preparation, then you are in the wrong place.

You have an idea for a story, but do you have any characters?

There are as many approaches to character development as there are writers – from character quizzes to writing vignettes – but I have been having good luck with the Fiasco method. The origin of the method is for generating immediate story from the tensions between characters at the story’s focus, but you can also use it to flesh out other aspects of a character, for example with relationships which do not play directly into the narrative but affect a character’s behavior and motives.

I’m going to be talking for the rest of this post about how I am using the Fiasco method with my story.

Do The Relationships First

Other character development approaches have you think about relationships once the character is already well-formed, but this is where the Fiasco method starts: describe the relationships that will drive the story, and then fit characters into those relationships.

For my story, I have a marital relationship between the protagonist and her new husband, I have an antagonistic relationship between the protagonist and the mercenary who mistakes her fascination with dice for interest in him, and I have a dependent relationship from the villagers onto the protagonist.

Where Do The Conflicts Happen?

There will be primary locations where the story is going to be driven most actively. In a classic Fiasco story, this will be two or three gathering points for the characters – there can still be other incidental locations, but the most significant action is going to happen in the main locations. These are going to be places like a local bar, or a junkies’ hang out, or a bank lobby, say.

At the start of my story, I have a handful of locations in the village where the novel opens. I will need to expand this quite a lot, because the story doesn’t stay in the village for very long…

What Motivates Each Character?

In Fiasco these motivations are termed “needs” and “objects”, but the basic idea is present in many character development approaches – what is it that the character wants? What is it that they are trying to avoid?

Next, what are they prepared to give up in order to obtain what they want? This is something that may change through the story – at the beginning the protagonist may be willing to sell something small, but as the narrative progresses and the stakes rise they may need to give up more than they want to – perhaps more than they can really afford.

My protagonist loses something hugely important near the beginning of the story, and it is that loss that drives her narrative through the rest of the book. She also feels responsible for the villagers, which colours her choices.

Other characters have much simpler motives at this point: the husband wants to protect his wife, while the mercenary just wants to get to the battlefield to earn his wage.

Describe the Characters Themselves

I generally avoid detailed character questionnaires. I’ll fill in meme quizzes sometimes, but I like to keep the descriptions of characters fairly fluid before the starting gun is fired on NaNoWriMo. Partly this is a function of not wanting to spend the time needed to fill in intricate character sheets*, but mostly is it a desire to have something to discover about the character in the full flood of writing.

But – you need some description. I lean heavily in the direction of laying out personality rather than physical traits, since that is what drives the story. Does the character like being in the relationships that they are in? What are they unhappy about? (drifting a little into needs there, but…) Are they conscientious? Do they have the kind of diligent personality that suits a career as an actuary?

My protagonist has been content with her unremarkable – even boring – life up to the point where the story opens. She is clever but relatively uneducated (it is a peasant village: few are well-educated). When that content life is torn away from her she is angry.

Finally, Name Them

Now you know your characters, you can give them names.

Now, it may be that the character’s name came first and that is of course fine, but the chances of coming up with an appropriate name are much higher after you have thought about how the character fits into the story and what their personality is like.

I am not at a stage where I can name the characters, though. This is part of what I will be working on next.

So – do you have characters? How are you going to develop them?

[*] which is also one of the reasons I don’t care for D&D these days.

5 Replies to “NaNoPreMo 2013 – Characters”

  1. helen says:

    I always decide on the main problem and the very big climatic scene at the end first, and then I decide what kind of characters could fit into that framework, and then I work on relationships.

    I’ve completed NaNo 5 out of 6 times and have a publisher for those completed novels (which I later explanded)– there is no one rule for anything, and formulas are best avoided.

    1. Dunx says:

      oh, absolutely agree on the formula remark! I”m just writing about what I am doing now – not meaning to be prescriptive for others. I have in mind a post about the value of advice which I would point to here if I had written it yet.

      Congratulations on selling your books, also.

  2. Kim says:

    This is a great post! I hadn’t thought about describing the relationships. This is going to be so useful. Thank you!

    1. Dunx says:

      Thanks, Kim! The thing I find with this approach is that you can get into the characters much more quickly if you have a sense of how they will react in their core relationships.

  3. With me, physical appearance definitely comes late in the process (and sometimes it’s sketchy even then).

    I don’t always know a lot about characters before they’re introduced. It varies, but sometimes it’s just that a door opens and a character walks in, and I figure it out as I go. I think of it as an audition. If they’re interesting and entertaining, they get a bigger part and maybe they come back in more stories.

    If not, maybe they get to be the murder victim. 🙂

    This does mean that the name has to come right away, though. But that’s how it is in life; we’re all named before anybody knows what we’ll turn into. If I know who the parents were, I try to figure out if it’s a name those parents would have chosen.

    However, a very large percentage of my characters are living under names they chose for themselves, so I have to figure out who would have chosen that name. Sometimes it’s a mystery to me, but the character demands a certain name (I understand this happens with children, too).

    I’ve been writing about a character who calls herself “starling” for over forty years, and I have no idea where she got that name (or why it’s always lower case). It has nothing to do with the actual qualities of the starling (the bird). I know what her real name is now, but even that took a decade or two.

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