NNWM – Character Development

Many writers I know are getting ready for NaNoWriMo. I don’t do it myself because I always have projects going and don’t work well creatively with word count goals. I write a story following story plot structure from beginning to end.

I do plan all my stories. I’m a teacher and an editor so I’ve had to explain to many different kinds of writers how to write a story, or how their story is structurally insufficient.

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Maybe in that planning and advice are some things that may help you with NaNoWriMo. As a teacher I’ve taught teenagers how to quick plan a story so that they can write one for our final quarter narrative writing projects. Just for background: I’ve taught writing fairytales, myths, and the hero’s journey, all of which are 6-8 weeks of lesson plans and in-class writing time. The product was based on the grade level, between 5,000 and 10,000 words. I start with five days of planning, after the other three quarters of the year having taught them concepts like finding character development in published stories, identifying goals and conflicts, mapping out the beats of the plot, recognizing how the climax, resolution, and theme were constructed.

My mantra throughout: when we can analyze the structure of what we have read, we are learning to write stories.

Character development is the first step in writing any story. You need full-bodied characters to plumb for inner and outer conflict. If you don’t take a few minutes to figure out who your characters are inside and out, your readers will never figure them out either because they’ll be inconsistent.

I do advocate writing things down, but I’m not talking about filling out character charts and sheets ad nauseum. For one, it’s too long. You take all this time to fill it out and likely will never comb through it again. So, you’ll almost certainly contradict something at some point.

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The most you should need to “chart” is the character’s physical description. Think “driver’s license”: name, age, height, weight, hair and eye color. It’s short enough to turn into a 4 x 6 notecard hanging in your writing space. Add a photo if you like. (I’ve been known to vertically flip a catalog model’s picture to print out for these to help kids with their story projects.)

Another technique I’ve seen is good for visual learners: creating character boards. It’s not very concrete for helping you figure out what words to use though unless you caption each in detail different things about your character with each image. A mood board that only describes the character’s likes isn’t as complete as one that has images that elicit all the different feelings, likes, dislikes, favorite childhood memory, worst childhood memory, first job, current job, goals/dreams, current friends and enemies, etc. You could, again, spend so much time on this that you’re not getting anywhere with actually feeling out your character in words, which is really what you need to do to write a story about them. Since my students had only the one week to plan, it was necessary to get them to the writing as quickly as possible. It also was never wrong to use parts of the pre-written scenes in their eventual stories, as long as it made sense.

My advice is to stick with planning techniques that make you use words, but more specifically: write a scene. This will firmly cement your characters in space, time, and let you show their reactions so that you can feel them well enough to write more about them.

“Hanging Out” with your characters

Two Characters Are Talking In The Living Room Of The Right Characters.  Stock Photo, Picture And Royalty Free Image. Image 20170459.

I call this pre-writing character development technique “catching up with a friend” or “hanging out.” Since teenagers are such social animals, this is an absolutely familiar scenario. You can format this any way you like, but it starts like this:

Invite yourself over to their house. You’re a friend they haven’t seen in a while. They’re hosting you. TIP: if you don’t want to be the friend in the scene, give them their own friend. You’ll be building both characters AND their relationship through the scene and writing in third person point of view.

Dialogue. Get a start on “hearing” the character talk. Start with “Hey, what’s been happening with you, man?” Weave the conversation in and around describing them preparing and serving the snacks, drinks, etc.

What do they offer to eat and/or drink? Describe the dishware being used. Is it mismatched or family heirloom? Do they apologize for it or explain it (or talk about the food’s quality or availability)?

Setting. Is this their new place? Or are they still living at home? What’s their furniture like? Is there a favorite poster or picture on the wall? Or stuff on a table or desk where the characters are eating? Is there a state-of-the-art gaming computer, beat up PS2, or nothing at all?

Other relationships. Does anyone live with them? Have that person briefly pass through and talk on their way to someplace else so you can see that relationship play out a bit.

As they go through what’s been happening in their life, you’re going to discover they’re telling you about a problem they’re having. Because that’s what happens when good friends get together.

Make note of that problem. Highlight all the bits about it after you’re done writing/typing the scene. That problem is going to become the forthcoming story’s plot (because solving that problem becomes their goal).

Come back tomorrow to see how pre-writing a scene centered around “here’s some advice” helps you plan out the steps in a story’s plot.

~ Lara

4 thoughts on “NNWM – Character Development

  1. oldbooklover

    I liked what you’ve said about character development, which is greatly lacking in some stories. One thing I’ve found that helps me – write a short story (>2,000 words) about your character as a child or teenager. If I can do that, I feel like I have created a real person.

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  2. Lara Zielinsky Post author

    That is an excellent additional idea, especially for adult writers of adult characters. My students were generally writing self-insertion stories so I didn’t cover this in depth, but we would talk about how our parents and childhood events shaped how we think now.

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  3. oldbooklover

    I first came up with this a couple of years ago when I was taking a creative writing course at the local community college. I was working on my first novel at the time, and had reached a point that would not have been well received in a class composed mainly of evangelicals or English majors who looked down on romance stories. The instructor wanted us to submit writing samples of less than 1,000 words. I wrote two stories about my protagonists as children and discovered how much better I understood them as adults. I think that was an ‘aha’ moment.

    I’m not sure what age your students are, but I bet they could come up with stories about something earlier in their lives that had meaning for them. I’m not exactly a kid (okay, I’m 75) but I still do that sometimes.

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    1. Lara Zielinsky Post author

      I no longer have a classroom full of students because my district requires face-to-face from teachers and I have caregiving responsibilities for elderly at-risk parents. But when I did teach, I did do some early memory writing with my advanced classes and we analyzed them for lessons learned in order to understand theme.

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