NANOWRIMO 2014 CHARACTERS

We’re almost at NaNoWriMo, so I don’t know how useful this advice will be, but it might help people as they go.

Characters are awesome, it would be pretty difficult to make a story without them. I’m sure it’s not impossible, but still, I’d rather not try yet. Learning who these characters are ahead of time can only help, even if you only do a little to understand who they are and why they’re in your book. In doing this kind of thing, I have actually found some characters to be unnecessary and removed them from the story or merged then with others to help tighten up the story.
We’re all going to have our respective casts and strengthening your relationship with them might help you push through your word count and the events of your novel. It may even be a way of dealing with a random Panic Jar plot invading your book or just waffling to get your words done for the day.

CHARACTER EXERCISES
No one chooses to write a two-dimensional character. We all want people to think our cast could be real and react like people to stimulus. If you’ve got a basic idea of who your leading cast are, you could interview them and see how their voices and answers work. If they feel too similar, you can tweak them accordingly.

When I was at the University of Sussex undertaking a Creative Writing CCE course I was told a simple exercise: Put your character up a tree and have someone throw rocks at them. How do they react? In theory each of your characters should react differently. Of course there could be a stated reason why they don’t and instead act exactly like someone else.
Paul Pickwoad in Amnesiac City would try to talk his way out of the situation as his main drive is that he believes he can talk his way out of any situation. McWilliams would hide and try to make jokes. Brogan would shoot the person without a moment’s thought.
It’s a simple exercise, but a good litmus test.

There are many, many good character questionnaires online which could be simple or run really deep into your character. I vary which ones I use most of the time, but another questionnaire I took from the CCE course is an eleven question one:
1) Where do you live?
2) Do you have a job? What is it?
3) What do you like?
4) What do you hate?
5) Do you have many friends?
6) Are you alone a lot? Are you lonely?
7) Where did you raised?
8) What was your upbringing like?
9) Do you have any secrets? What are they?
10) What problems do you have?
11) What is your name?

It’s fairly simple and while some questions can overlap at first look, each character in the book I’m proofreading now has had some very different reactions.

For instance Lena Parker, one of the main characters:

1) Where do you live?
With my parents in Fate Cove. It’s a fancy island town.

2) Do you have a job? What is it?
I’m at school, but I work sometimes at my uncle’s coffee shop. In theory more than in practice. Don’t tell him I said that.

3) What do you like?
Sports, Luke and Cam, the island, reading, fighting.

4) What do you hate?
Not being good at fighting, losing my ability to feel any physical contact.

5) Do you have many friends?
I have a best friend; Vanessa. After that I’d like to think I have a few. Cam and Luke. My brother and I get on, too, no matter what he says.

6) Are you alone a lot? Are you lonely?
I guess… Not many people talk to me. I’m not sure how I feel about that. Popularity has a price and I like being me too much for that.

7) Where did you raised?
Right here. I grew up as one of the first ‘island babies’. We’ve travelled a little, but we always return home.

8) What was your upbringing like?
Great. I might still be going through it. What do people class as the end of childhood? There should be fireworks to show when you’re done with it.

9) Do you have any secrets? What are they?
I’m not as naïve as they think. I think.

10) What problems do you have?
I can’t feel physical contact most of the time, I want to not feel uncomfortable in my own body. I want my dad’s approval, I want to know what to do with my life.

11) What is your name?
Helena T Parker. My friends and family prefer to call me Lena as my mum has dibs on the name.

But then others might not actually answer the questions. Lena’s mother actively refused to answer what her real surname was. One of the cast revealed her real full name to me and I had no idea she was acting under a false name until that point. I won’t say who, yet.

On our community page we link to a couple of character questionnaires you may want to put your cast through. You might want to take some of the billion personality quizzes like, “Which Game of Thrones character are you?” “What colour are you?” and so on. There’s a point where you’re just running in circles with the same information, but to get a sense of who they are and their voices, I do recommend this as something to try out.

If any of you have questionnaires or exercises you like to do, post them in the comments as it’d be interesting to see different and potentially better ones.

CONTINUITY NOTES
Austin Waters is left-handed and won’t swear until a certain point in Play Dead.
Joe Parker is allergic to pepper, Howard Morton is lactose intolerant. Vanessa is actually ambivalent about cheese, despite what she says to impress her crush.

When something big or something which can be called back to is mentioned in any of my stories or notes I note it on a bit of card (and Scrivener tab) which reminds me of the character’s continuity. This way, hopefully everything will be consistent and can be tagged in when necessary. Sometimes these established facts can be used later on as fully-fledged plot elements, sometimes they won’t come up at all but are there just in case.
This kind of housekeeping is something I recommend to save you from searching back and forth through your book to check what the eye colour of a character is. What I tend to do is get a stack of index cards, one for each character, then jot down the absolute basics as necessary for the story.
In Lightning this was the name, what they want, their voice, relevant colour scheme and random items. In Play Dead it was a lot less, just name and role in the heist. In Amnesiac City it’s the characters’ name, the random item they wake up with, their motivation and their belief (eg; everything can be solved through talking, if I use humour everyone will like me).
Each time something new happens, it goes on the cards. Someone’s allergic to something. Someone hates a type of music. I admit I tend to nitpick and when something is completely out of place or contradicts known facts, it drops me out of the fiction. This happens with amateur and proper writers alike, for instance Renly Baratheon’s eye colour which changes in A Song of Ice and Fire. Sure, some people try and square that circle with excuses about how his eyes may have changed colour, but even George RR Martin admits he screwed up.
If you keep your own continuity notes on a card, notepad, Scrivener tab, anything like that, you’ll be in charge of whether you mess up or not and you may be able to harvest that information for plot elements later on. In season two of Lightning, I’ll be using Joe Parker’s allergy to pepper as part of a rather painful ‘meet cute’.

LITTLE SCENES
Something else you might want to do as a fun exercise is put two of your cast in a situation together outside of your book and see on some note paper what happens. Do they fight? Do they get on? Do they get it on? You aren’t allowed to write any of your 50k before NaNoWriMo, but nothing stops you writing a little side story or even having a hypothetical scene. I know in Lightning I had some side stories such as the Parker family watching Buffy and the reactions of them all to something which I admit I’m a massive fan of. Helen Parker took my fandom of the series on, Buzz was handling his accounts on a Galaxy Tab, Joe had wandered off to play Xbox, Lena was humouring her mother but this was something of her generation, then their new addition to the family had to check which elements of the show were real or not. It was a fun little scene to get me into the ‘skin’ of the cast even though it technically all happens ‘off screen’ in the book itself.

I’m sure there are more fun things to do with characters, but this is all I have for now. I’ll add more if it comes to mind.

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