PREPARING FOR NANOWRIMO: PART FOUR
So we have a baseline idea for a novel, we know about the themes and the moods. By now, it’s often good to get a rough idea of the beginning, the end and the choke-points in the middle. You don’t have to go crazy with detail yet. If you remember, my first notes on The Big Idea were missing a MacGuffin for the characters to strive for, and anything about the characters themselves. In this year’s book, the MacGuffin is simply the object of want which drives the characters to do what they’re doing. In other stories, they might be more key. In Green Lantern, the thing which drives plot is a ring which makes objects from pure willpower and imagination. Then the story hangs on that. Personally, I prefer to centre my story on character, and that’s what we’re all about today.
With any luck you’ve got a rough idea of the character/s you’ll be using. They might be taken from around you, they might be random clicks from TV Tropes (a great way of accentuating personality traits for extras, by the way).
INTERVIEWS & CHARACTER STUDIES
When dealing with an individual character, whether major or minor, it’s often good to do a little work to see what’s going on inside them. This could be an interview between one of you and them, written down or even meditated on. A lot of characters will act in a different way to the same questions. Something as simple as, “What is your name?” could have several answers. People might not answer on principle, give their entire name, a false name, a nickname or might go completely off the rails and do something different. Some questions might be taken as having one-word answers from some characters, they might get you a lecture from another.
When studying Creative Writing I was given a list which while not perfect, gives a good basis with which to interview a character. Here are those questions:
- Where do you live?
- Do you have a job? What is it?
- What do you like?
- What do you hate?
- Do you have many friends?
- Are you alone a lot? Are you lonely?
- Where were you raised?
- What was your upbringing like?
- Do you have any secrets? What are they?
- What problems do you have?
- What is your name?
Another fun exercise to simply make sure that your characters are different from each other is to put them in the same environment. Put them up a tree, and have someone throwing rocks at them. How do they react to this confrontation? Do they use reason? Throw things back? Attack the rock-thrower? Cry and beg for it to stop?
Not all of this character work will make it into the story, but if you know what’s going on behind your character, they will be alive enough to do their own little dance in your head. You can let them get on with the plot and effectively write it themselves by reacting to the stimulus you put in front of them.
For fun I’ve jotted down dialogues between two cast members who I had no intention of putting together, and thanks to seeing odd combinations, you start to see relationships, good or bad form. One character interrupted one of these exercises for my book Lightning, and created a whole new relationship because of his interference.
POINT OF DEPARTURE (ROLE-FIRST)
This was the story of 15 people going mad in an airport departure lounge. I came up with them as the whole group first, including the unknown narrator talking about them as a single tribe, not giving clues to their identity until much later. The flow of the story had the cast starting off separate and getting closer as they were stuck together. They were holiday-makers, so I split them into smaller groups, a few individuals and a few families. The tourist who’d not been abroad before and still had price tags on his shoes. The couple who fought the whole time. The affair. A holiday romance which had been purposefully ended at the airport without the characters knowing they would spend the next few days trapped with only that character. I even used a spreadsheet to list the cabins in the hotel they all stayed at and who would have spoken to whom. With these elements as seeds, there was enough to start having the characters speak to each other. Even before writing I scribbled down in notes or simply thought about how two of them would act if they were trapped in a place with each other. While most of that didn’t enter the page per se, it still informed me of a romance plot, the dynamic between the children of two families, and a death. I even cut the cast from 16 to 15 because one character had nothing to do and didn’t add to the inter-cast dynamic.
LIGHTNING & LONDON KNIGHTS (CHARACTER FIRST)
As my oldest prose projects, these both started with characters for the sake of characters. I fit them into their roles later.
Lightning’s core cast were created between 1987 and 1998 (from when I was 7 to 18). Originally it was going to be a comic with about 50 characters, but I looked at who had purpose, who would be interesting and culled the rest during an English lesson in 1996. It was painful and the cast went down to twenty. The concept was abandoned until it was completely remade in 2002, with an even smaller cast (a still sizeable 14). The characters are split into two generations of three families, which makes it easy to plot the relationships at the start of the book. Everyone ends in different places, as is my intention with each book in the Lightning series, but that’s half the fun of setting these relationship up. You get to knock them to pieces. In a rough chapter layout, I gave control of the perspective to different characters, creating a mosaic of experience. The people with the most were the de facto protagonists. The first is Bill Parker, waking from a coma to find out that he’s a dad and his (former) widow is BFFs with his nemesis. He’s an innocent, well-meaning and with a really impulsive streak when it comes to acting like a hero. The second perspective is Helena “Lena” Parker, the physically invulnerable and socially impenetrable daughter of Bill, showing us the reaction of the family to Bill’s return, finally making friends with a human and with out third perspective. Luke Far is the shy (not like wallflower but like feral abuse victim) son of Bill’s best friend. He’s a former child runaway and experiencing school for the first time. I was able to weave these three people’s arcs into similar, yet different problems. Learning either to fit in or accept not doing so, learning about family, the outside world and dealing with normal problems in a superheroic way.
The original plan for London Knights was, again, a comic. I created it for a pitch where magic was hidden in the real world, and had eight cast members made so that people could vote on plot direction and character life or death at the end of each arc. It didn’t get picked up and I used the project for the last NaNoWriMo, with a more defined cast. Again, I split them apart. There were the two leading Knights, then the three survivors who were all broken people socially and mentally, and our three new characters. I had decided the new guys were our protagonists, allowing the reader to have the same introduction to the bizarre and wonderful world of Knights.
MY NANOWRIMO 2012 PROJECT (ROLE FIRST)
In part two of my series, I was able to find the very first notes I made, copied again here:
“We’re not going to do a school shooting,” he said. “We’re going to fake a school shooting.”
And it all went downhill from there.
Almost Fiasco style. A pair of kids plan to fake a school shooting for some reason. They begin to get some people on side, the artist, for instance, who thinks it’s a perfect piece of bad taste performance work. Some ringers who will fake injury, or suffer minor real ones for the sake of the project. It becomes a labour of love and expands in the elaborate schemes until the tilt.
The shooting itself goes hideously wrong. Fake weapons and real ones mixed up, panic makes the populace uncontrollable, some police are stupid “hero” types who go in too gung ho, some are useless and it all goes awry.
Notice that there’s no mention of actual people. The concept came first and I knew the characters would come later. That doesn’t make them lesser people because of that, and the roles grew the more I fleshed them out. I knew a pair of protagonists were necessary so that they could bat the ideas off of each other, get wound up in it. A person doing this alone would have not only been really difficult, but a lot more like a crazy person pretty much shooting up a school, and that’s not what we want.
The next thing is the artist and some ringers. I mentioned those, right? So we’ve got most of the cast right away, from that first note, even if there’s not much information being shared.
In that lovely, shiny new, “back to school” notebook with all the coloured pencils on it, I wrote a list of roles:
- Protagonist 1
- Protagonist 2
- The Artist
- The Psycho
- Drama Geek 1
- Drama Geek 2
- The Bonnie
And there you go, the core cast. This changed, because it really had to. As the core group of conspirators grew, the closer they would be, and the more unstable their plan would become.
The protagonists were the last ones to be assigned proper roles because they were fleshed out in more than just a ‘role’ way. They had more detailed notes within a couple of days:
“Protagonist 1. Too invisible. Not interesting or popular, not outlandish or weird or with something to get the label ‘outcast’. Able to get through a day without ever talking to a person. Someone genuinely wrote, “Who are you?” in his yearbook. Dad was a drunk, is… somewhere else.”
“Protagonist 2. Better off than Protagonist 1, but rich for this town doesn’t mean much. Ambitious, forges shit for people. Dad wants him in a band. He doesn’t know what he wants.”
So that’s it initially. They became The Nobody and The Forger. Not dumb or insane kids, but not doing well academically because, well, why try in Greenville? One of the drama geeks was renamed The Method Actor so that he’d take everything about his role of ringer way to seriously.
I knew I wanted the two protagonists to be guys, and I wanted that kind of intense early/mid-teenage friendship where you don’t have many friends, but the one or two you do, they’re closer than family. The kind that is so great, but burns out really quickly later in life.
With my ensemble in front of me, I had their role and a bunch of scenes already formed. I wanted a couple of the group to be fascinated with The Psycho, the Drama Geek asking about the motivation of the imaginary pair of shooters, and so on. I needed names, and I wanted to establish relationships. Something I’ve been doing for over a decade and Fiasco does so well, is map out the relationships between cast members. I’ve done this by laying out each name on a bit of paper, a little away from each other, then draw lines with the tie between them. This could be a one-way link like a crush, or a two-way one like a deep-seated hatred or a mutual secret. I still had no names, as names are a nuisance to work out, but mapped them out with the roles and spaces for names.
It was this point, in establishing the relationships, that I got annoyed with not naming the characters and spent a weekend finding some names, and tying down the relationships. At the end of the relationship, I realised that killing 1-3 characters in the book was easy when they weren’t named but now… ugh, it felt like a punch in the gut. I felt like a dick. I’d spent two days working out the lives and dreams of these kids, and knowing that some would have to be sacrifices to the story hurt me, deep inside. I’m pleased, as I think that proves I’m not a psychopath. The thing is, I have to still go through with it. If I feel so bad, hopefully I can make the reader invested and hit them with it, too.
I have my chart for the characters below, including the names of the main cast members. In red are a couple of lines of dialogue between characters and ties to people outside of the main group. The relationship map is only for the core group, as they need to have a lot more depth than the outer circle of cast members.
NAMING THE CHARACTERS
I hate naming things. I’ve written a few thousand words on this book so far, but I still have no name for the book itself. Despite loving ensemble casts, naming a ton of people all at once is a pain. If you can deal with one or two, you can play with names which fit the character, or even give them names and watch the character match the perception you have towards it.
Point of Depature’s cast have placeholder names which I used to use for most projects. Primarily, they were part of a dystopian science fiction comic universe a friend and I made in the early 1990’s. Like Stephen King’s reuse of character names in Desperation and The Regulators, they had similar traits, but were like using the same actors for different roles in a film. One day, I would love to revisit the dystopian science fiction superhero project and it’ll be interesting seeing how the characters feel after seeing them in this claustrophobic horror novel.
Lightning is always going to be an exception as it’s something I made when I was seven. Kind of. I know that the surname “Parker” was used because of Spider-Man and even now is kept to invoke ideas of superheroism. The surname “Deáth” was originally “Death” because a seven year old isn’t very subtle when it comes to naming villains, but has been kept to show how blatantly evil Nick Deáth and his kids are, yet the reputation has gone the whole way round and no one expects real evil from them. Nick has become almost a parody of himself, and Bill’s return brings back the big evil inside him. The other family, the “Far” family had their first character made by my little brother, and I’ve no idea what happened there. I’m not entirely sure where the other cast member names came from in my youth, but they’ve all remained the same, even if they’ve been mutated a little over time.
London Knights’ first characters had profession-based names, Megan Fletcher, Izdihaar “Izzy” Gardener, Erland Carpenter. Even Leila Ward was there because she’s a magician and good primarily with protection. I went with odd-sounding or uncommon first names for most of the cast, then for the second protagonist (along with Izzy), John James is the most everyman of the cast and his name if the plainest of the ground. Then there’s The Archivist, who didn’t even have a name until I picked three at random and got Corwin Alan Ashton, because no one in 1998 London can function properly at “The Archivist”. That’d be dumb.
In my 2012 NaNoWriMo novel, I when specific and referential with my cast members. The surnames were taken from a massive list of crews of teen media (and in one case, Gilligan from the creator of my new addiction, Breaking Bad). I decided to pick the first names from the most common names of the year they would have been born. With two years turnaround to proof, redraft, edit and pitch my novel, I’m giving it a ‘present’ of 2014. That means the cast, all 17 years old, were born in 1997 (scarily, when I was 17!). All the names were taken from the most popular names, again to drive home the homogenised nature of the setting. The more the setting is a bland, desolate nothing, the more motivation the cast have to take such an extreme measure to escape.
And that will bring me to the next topic, Setting. What it means to your world, your characters and your narrative, along with examples from my own work.
MY NANOWRIMO PAGE: http://nanowrimo.org/en/participants/charlie-x