Cooking up a Character Part 1

“Developing characters is like giving birth,” Bria said. “You spend hours thinking about names, developing their personality, giving them backgrounds and then, as you’re writing, they decide that what you’ve carefully planned just isn’t working for them. In fact, they rebel against you, talking back and pulling you in all directions. Just like children.”

She’d never given birth before. Ever. Her clean clothes, well manicured nails and stylish hair gave her away. Her friend, Rachel,who’s daughter will be turning six in a week, scoffed and rolled her eyes.

“Have a child first and then we’ll talk,” Rachel said, smoothing her ruffled shirt. Her short, bitten thumb nail absent mindedly picked at a stubborn peanut butter stain.  Bria rolled her eyes.

“You don’t understand,” she said. “Characters require so much effort. If they aren’t taken care of, they fall flat. Dry. Boring. They carry the story!”

“Yes,” Rachel interupted, voice strained. “And children require all of your attention. You can’t leave them alone for one minute. You can’t even take care of yourself.”

“So you do understand!” Well-groomed Bria said, clasping her hands in excitement. “I’m so glad we can share this trial together.”

End Scene

Sooo, I’m just practising writing from scratch. Word count, apparently, is moved along by writing random things as often as possible. And given the content of some of my posts, I’m not that worried about my ability to write randomly.

This is the first part to my two part series on character prep… I will be mentioning Evernote and James V Smith’s You Can Write a Novel kit a lot, because those two things/people are my saviours and safety blankets. They’re the cuddly stuffed toys I hug during a storm to keep calm and stop me from worrying about my building falling down.

In this post, with the help of Smith’s kit, I will cover Character development from Names to Sheets to tips and such. In the next post, I will talk about how to keep all of your character stuff organized (and really, the rest of your preparation notes).

Character Names

Probably one of the best (and most time consuming) strategies for character names is proposed bySmith in his kit…

“Divide a sheet of paper into three columns… Open a telephone directory to the A listings. Copy some interensting last names into the first column of your name directory. I suggest you collect three to five last names [in each letter].”

~ page 30

“Pick any page in the phone book and write down the best male and female first names you find. Fill the last two columns of your directory with these names.”

~ page 31

I have yet to finish this task. For one thing, I don’t actually OWN a phone book. (Does anyone?) For another, I keep starting, then stopping. Then starting again. Then stopping. I literally have four names in addition to the ones that are already associated with characters. It’s sad. I just KNOW I will need this later.


Character Sheets

My You Can Write a Novel kit has helped me immensely with my plotting and planning… for my other novel (I haven’t really used it for my NaNo novel. You’d think I would, but that would just make too much logical sense, now wouldn’t it?)

In the kit, Smith provides Major/Master Character sheet and Minor Character sheets. These are the best things since the written word, people, when it comes to organizing your novels. One of the things he includes that you need to work out are three different goals for each character – from your Main Character’s (MC) main goal to your one-dimensional random character’s main goal.

“Cardinal Rule 13: Give major characters – and even minor characters – goals and motivations of their own. Permit them to have personal reasons for being in your novel, rather than using them as set pieces for your convenience.”

~ page 55

He actually provides an example of how giving a character, no matter how minor a role the character plays, a goal makes your story more real:

“Naturally, you, the author, have a purpose for inserting a character into a scene. It might be as contrived as inventing a drop-in friend so you can write dialogue instead of having your heroic character musing…. but if you want all your characters to come alive on the page, you must give them reasons to live…. for instance, the friend isn’t an idle drop-in, after all; he’s broke and wants to borrow money. The heroic character refuses, revealing that he was arrested… and had to put up a cash bond. The friend challenges this as an absurd excuse. They argue. The friend storms out…. Notice what happened. The action focuses on the argument, which allows information about the arrest to be revealed and shows the worsening circumstances of the heroic character.”

~ page 55

This will make your characters real. Lets face it – everyone you meet in your life has their own personal vendetta to complete. Everyone. Even if you only meet them for a second of polite conversation over the counter of the coffee shop. These personal vendetta’s are what make characters come to life. They are the souls of your story. Use them.

I don’t know how much of the character sheet I can provide, given I’d rather support a fellow author and he has put a lot of work into this kit – so go buy one if you think these will work for you. As an overview, here’s what his Major/Master Character sheet entails (the ingredients if you will):

  • The stuff you expect to be on a character sheet: Name, Age, Bio/Back story, physical appearance & notes to self to remember
  • Goals/Motivations (I divide these into three: the goal that benefits the “whole” – ie, the story; the goal that benefits them – ie. their selfishness; their romantic goals… that one’s self-explanatory)
  • Fatal Flaw & Saving Grace – the two things that make us truly human. Our flaws and our gifts. Think of something for your characters and use that. I’d have to say that a fatal flaw of new writers (myself included) is to make the good guy without fault and the bad guy without any virtue. Don’t do this. Make your characters real. Give them a Fatal Flaw and a Saving Grace – maybe your MC is good, but too good. So goody goody that they’re ridiculously naive. Or the bad guy is evil but treats his animals and underlings well.
  • A Striking Feature – Smith says every character should have something that people will notice. Big breasts, a hooked nose, a lazy eye… hunched shoulders, an icy glare. What makes the other characters in your novel look at this particular character and go… whoa!
  • Clippings – this was my favourite part of my character development. Smith suggests that you search through magazines (or you can just do an image search in Google) and clip out images of people you want your characters to look like & paste them to the character sheet.

Smith’s description of each part of the character sheet is much better (fyi, he also explains the difference between a Major/Master character and a Minor character… he explains a lot now that I think about it. I highly encourage people to read his book if not purchase the kit. OR borrow it. I’m sure it’s available in a library somewhere).

From what I could gather, the different between a Major and Minor character sheet is in the detail. You’ll provide more details for the Major character than the Minor character; also, all of the minor character’s details will be biased towards how they effect your MC. Instead of – she was born in a small town – it will be – she was born in the same small town as the MC. Instead of – she works at a coffee shop – it will be – she’s the barista that knows the MC’s order before it’s placed.

Character Clippings

As I mention above, Smith suggests finding clippings for your characters, and your settings, and basically everything… this way you can have a visual representation of what you’re writing about.  I suggest using Google Images. From there you can copy and paste everything into your character document (assuming you’re using a digital method of recording all of this information).

Character Tips

In the course of my prep work for NaNo, I have read through a bunch of character development blogs. This time I remembered to keep track of them (in Evernote btw… for anyone interested). And here they are:

25 Things you should know about Characters by terribleminds

8 Ways to Write better Characters by Elizabeth Sims

A Character Checklist by Margo Berendsen

A Character Interview by Donna Sundbland

Great Characters by Kristen Lamb

How to Craft Compelling Characters by David Corbett

Have you read any good Character developing tips lately? Share them with the class! We will all benefit from your generosity. I think. I hope. Maybe. It’s possible. Just type people!

3 Responses to “Cooking up a Character Part 1

  • Hey Lisa. You sound like you are well on your way. All this prep helps your mind percolate the story. It’s bubbling. Good job.

    • Thanks! I’m feeling more confident about my NaNo story the more I work on it. I’m looking forward to actually starting the writing portion of this project!

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