#NaNoPrep 101 Week Two – Creating Characters

Four characters sitting around a table: a teddy bear, a blue-faced woman, a woman in a wrestling mask and wood-sculpture faced man

This second week of NaNo Prep 101 is titled Create Complex, Believable Characters .

The exercise provided includes character questionnaires that you may find useful, but the final three questions are the most important:

  • Want
  • Need
  • Internal/External obstacles

Where I begin my characters

Weeks ago when I began the Writer In Motion Challenge, I talked about the Character Creation Spreadsheet I’ve created as a tool to spark my stories. Through my experience with quick-deadline short stories, especially participating in The Writer’s Games, I’ve learned that creating well-rounded, interesting characters inspires an interesting plot with conflict and purpose.

I am reading Mastering the Process by Elizabeth George and in Chapter 3 “Digging Deeper into Character” she gave me some ideas for new columns to my spreadsheet.

1. Core Need: This is the underlying motivation for everything the character does. The character may not be self-aware enough to know their core need, however, they will be by the end of the story. Elizabeth George gives some example of core needs as: approval, perfection, to be right, attention, etc.

I put the core need column right after the name columns in my spreadsheet and went searching for more (which reminds me, I need to add to my names columns. It may be time to weed out some over-used names as well). My search led to many articles of 6 core needs, 7 core needs, up to 10 (of course) human needs, but   I wasn’t attempting to dilute the idea to an easy list, so I have 31 so far and will keep adding.

2. Psychopathology or “Pathological maneuver”: Here’s where it gets fun. We all have moments where we are stunned by our own words and actions. We sit there asking ourselves, “Why did I do that?” Our actions are contrary to our needs and desires. Sometimes we even self-sabotage.

Elizabeth George calls these actions “pathological maneuvers.” In her list of these behaviors she includes: showering for hours, kleptomania, hoarding, and bullying. She also includes all manias and phobias, obsessions, and compulsions. In my column, which I put directly after the core needs column, I looked up lists of manias and phobias and will keep adding.

I already have a core fear and secondary fear column on my spreadsheet, but they are more about the underlying beliefs than the manifestations in actions. It will be interesting to see what comes to mind when the fears and behaviors collide.

With these two aspects of the character influencing thoughts and behaviors every scene will have an agenda and tension. I’m excited to try out these new additions to my Character Creation tool and see who is coming to play in my next story.

The Future and My Character Creation Spreadsheet

I started thinking about specific characters for my NaNoWriMo Novel and realized I needed a new Character Creation Spreadsheet. Naming trends will be different, as will occupations, hobbies, causes, maybe even fears. With those thoughts in mind, I decided to create a science-fiction-specific character creation spreadsheet.

Review of Character creation and development

Over the years I have collected many writing references and almost every one has a chapter or more on character creation and development. I thought this week would be a good time to review the materials I have and select exercises and ideas for this project.

Masterclass

I got myself a full-access pass to Masterclass.com in 2019 and really enjoy it. Each class comes with a workbook. I thought I would take a look through some of my favorites and see what they have to say about character.

Margaret Atwood had an interesting chart that she uses to reference her characters in time. The chart has the months on the left and blanks along the top for years. She begins by charting the character’s birthday. Then she charts dates of major events that influence that character.

Neil Gaiman likes to find his characters through listening, so his character development is about condensing speech and interviewing your characters.

David Mamet says there is no character, only actions. This idea correlates well with this video from Pixar in a box:

Joyce Carol Oates encourages getting to know your characters as if they are people you have met in real life. She says it’s important to choose characters who fascinate you. Write an exploration into why exactly they are so important / unique to your perspective.

Books

Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer explores four main approaches to characterization:

  1. Obsessive Immersive – includes stream of consciousness to be fully inside the character as if living inside a brain
  2. Full (rounded) – interior thoughts and emotions, but the thoughts of the character do not define everything
  3. Partial – characters remain mysterious to some extent. Idiosyncratic/ Type driven.
  4. Flat – folk tales/ fairy tales. Archetypes existing on symbolic and literal level.

Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass – The first twelve chapters are Character Development. Almost all of the exercises are about increasing stakes and conflict. Once I have created some characters to play with, exploring these exercises will definitely help me come up with some plot points.

Wired For Story by Lisa Cron focuses on the importance of the reader relating to the protagonist to have a visceral, emotional reaction to the story. What moves a story forward is the protagonist’s actions, reactions and decisions (agreeing with Mamet?). Character bios should concentrate on information relevant to your story.

Now Write! Screenwriting edited by Sherry Ellis and Laurie Lamson – Anything that makes it easier for you to create your characters is a good tool. Explore the public, personal and private lives of your character. Find your character’s dramatic truth. Characters’ actions under duress demonstrate who they really are (this is sounding familiar).

To produce active characters ask:

  1. What does my character want?
  2. Why does s/he want it?
  3. Why can’t s/he get it?
  4. What does s/he need?

Identify protagonist’s inherent weakness that creates a psychological need. The inciting incident causes the protagonist to want something and take steps to get it. The action of the inciting incident reveals the protagonist’s weakness.

List physical, psychological and sociological aspects of your character. Use these aspects to create contradictions through contrasting details.

Mapping the Hero’s Journey With Tarot by Arwen Lynch – The first chapter of the book is about using the court cards to answer some questions about your character. Chapter two explores your character in his/her ordinary world.

Youtube Videos

I made a creating characters collection of some videos I found on youtube

Pixar in a box collection has some videos on character

My Plan for this week

Last week I noticed that listing my plans for the week helped me see clear, actionable goals and get things done. I started reading comps, immersing myself in related, movies and shows, collecting futurist signals specific to my project and more.  This week I hope to create a cast of characters to start getting to know.  Here’s my plan:

Random Number Character Creation Spreadsheet: Once I have created my new sci-fi specific spreadsheet, I will use a random number generator to create characters to populate my future world.

Explore my characters with Tarot: I will use Lynch’s exercises to flesh out my characters further.

Fill in Character sheets in Scrivener including images: From my randomly generated characters, I will select my protagonist, antagonist and other main characters and fill in the rest of their Character sketch sheets. Once I have solidified some ideas about my characters, I’ll head over to my Pinterest board of possible characters and find images of how they look.

Free-write about characters: After I have a fuller picture of who my characters are, I’ll do some timed free-writes. First from my perspective. Then in their own voices.

Interview characters: I will look through my resources and collect questions that I think will help me get to know my characters better, trying to make them as story-specific as I can. Then I will imagine that I am having a conversation with my character, asking them the questions I’ve collected and writing down their answers, noting their physical reactions and body language.

During NaNoWriMo 2017 I wrote a blog post every day. One of the things I included was a section with questions to ask your character. Many of those questions came from the Great Questions List that is part of StoryCorps.org ‘s project to record humanity’s stories.

Physically act out walk, body movements, and voice of main characters: While reading Voice Acting by , I recorded myself reading the script to put yourself into your character. Like a meditation, it guides me into putting myself into my character and becoming them to explore how they sound, how they hold themselves as they speak because that influences how the voice sounds. Yesterday, while I was collecting Youtube videos about character, I found this video with a similar technique. (starting 14:40)

Start thinking about my characters’ actions and reactions in possible story scenarios and writing exercises from the Breakout Novel Workbook.

How do you create and develop your characters?

Do you have specific resources and tools you like to use?

Happy Reading and Writing!

Name this turtle and get your name in the next Gator McBumpypants book!

A one of a kind stuffed box turtle made by Maria L. Berg

What should my name be? Enter the contest

Creation makes its own calendar

I thought I was way ahead of the game. I had big plans and was gonna do it right this year. I mean, I have experience. I have my online presence set up.  I filled in my Google calendar. I had a marketing plan. Everything I had done would make this book easy, right?

WRONG

At times it felt like the earth itself was against me. Record high heat and illness when I had signed up for the SCBWI  critique and record rains when I had planned my photo shoot. At other times it felt like a complete waste of time to create a book about a child  coping with the loss of a friend moving away, when everyone was in a state of constant hyperbole.

And then, the one person who I could count on to take Gator McBumpypants very seriously, who would police my commas and make sure that I wrote the best I could, died. I still haven’t dealt with it. One third of my critique group is gone. She was amazing and beautiful and knowing her gave me hope for humans.

So, that Google calendar reminds me what I haven’t done and I ignore it. My marketing plan was based on things I have been told to do, that honestly, haven’t given me returns so far.

Yesterday and today, as I worked on the turtle that I have imagined for so long, but was not  ready to make until now, I thought about the joy of creation. I remembered how much I enjoy the process of forming an idea and letting it grow, then using my bits of fabric and stuffing to create a three dimensional sculpture that will have thoughts and feelings and adventures for readers to live in.

It is alchemy of the best kind. I am in love with this turtle.  I love it because at times it felt impossible but I had to make it, and because I made it as close to my model as I could (a very angry looking turtle), but still made it adorable which was my goal.

Please join in the creation of Gator McBumpypants Doesn’t Say Goodbye. Name this turtle on the Gator McBumpypants and Friends facebook page and you will not only name a new friend but get a special thank you in the book.

Thank you for being part of my writing life and letting me be part of yours.

Update: The turtle’s name is Shelley. Congratulations to Amy Chesler who won the contest.

 

 

Tips and Tricks: Creating Revision Goals and Preparing For First Readers.

 Crater Lake July 4th 2015

The hummingbird moth drinking after dark.                                                                             photo by Maria L. Berg

I apologize for my time away. I needed a break and an adventure to fill me up with new energy, so I could return to you with insight.

I can finally see an endpoint to my revisions, at least an endpoint that will allow me to send a draft to my carefully chosen first readers (I chose my first readers for many different reasons. I chose eight people who will give me honest feedback and may see my content from different points of view. I will talk more about first readers in October). Here are the revelations occurring in my writing life that have brought me to this exciting point in the writing of my novel.

Tips:

1. Listen when a good friend asks if you need to be held accountable.

There is nothing better than a fellow writer and good friend wanting to read your book. When my critique group asked how my revision was going and I said I kept writing other things, Sherri stepped up and said, “Do you need me to hold you accountable?”  I am obstinate and rebellious, so having someone else hold me accountable was not an option, but wow did she set a fire under my seat .

As a self-motivator, I interpreted her words as, “you are not doing your work” in a way that I needed. I realized I had to set goals and make deadlines to see my draft become the novel that I want it to be.

2. Make your goals real and tell others.

The first thing I did to become accountable was to choose a date that had meaning to me. I didn’t map out the time I thought it would take and then set a date.That never works for me. Large dates like birthdays, anniversaries of important events, important holidays, are ways that I challenge myself. This time, I have a difficult anniversary (Ten years since evacuation with no return) and I want to turn it into a celebration.  Once I imagined I could achieve my goals by that date, I set personal goals for each day. For the first time ever, I tried to be reasonable and create achievable goals. Believe it or not, I procrastinate and have impressive skills in self-sabotage.

Then I talked to my first readers. I told them the date I chose and asked if they still wanted to be my first readers. This made me accountable, not only to myself, but to eight other people. And now to you.

3. Break your goals into little pieces and attack!

Knowing what I had left to accomplish in a short amount of time, I had to break down the last of my goals into daily work. To do that, I created weekly themes that I could break down into little projects. The first hurdle was typing all of my hand written edits from my last read through and from my critique group into a new draft. The perceived tediousness of the task had been the stop sign that had me wandering into different styles and story ideas. I gave myself two days to only type in edits. However, for every little comma or word choice, I saw larger problems that I either changed or got stuck on.

One of the greatest tips I have to give you is when you get stuck, change your text to red, type a note about what you want but can’t get to or why you’re stuck and move on. Typing up all the editing ended up taking five days instead of two, but I discovered how prepared I was to finish. For every sentence that was confusing, I knew how to change it into sense. For every chapter that was weak, I had a plan.

great reflection on Crater Lake

Reflecting on reflection                                                                                    photo by Maria L. Berg

Which leads us to my new (and newly applied) tricks:

1. Character Development through dialog: A personal breakthrough and a lesson in rereading my own blogs – This was my original name for this post because I felt like I had a major epiphany and wanted to share, but realized I had already posted about my use of dialog to get writing to the page in a previous post Getting words on the page. Dialog as a warm-up is the third tip in that post. My epiphany, however, is a little different. My protagonist is a self-proclaimed hermit who has very little interaction with anyone outside of her house. She has a lifetime of reasons for her hermithood and layers of associations as motivations, but I found it hard to get any of this across to the reader because my character didn’t want to think about those bad experiences. Finally, I had a breakthrough. I had already established that she talked to a friend every day on the phone, but I hadn’t written any of their conversations. I started writing their conversations as part of my morning pages and suddenly my protagonist’s world opened up. I found it awe inspiring how a quick phone conversation could let the reader know twenty years of back-story. My critique group found some of conversation unclear, but I think leaving some parts of the conversation up to interpretation leaves space for the reader (to relate to or not, to imagine something different in the space between).

2. Let yourself go through research- After finishing my edits, I created a separate document for each of the seven section I had left in red ink that need further writing. I noticed that the sections I need to really dive into are the areas I have little to no experience with, or contain behaviors that are outside my purview. I needed to get outside of myself.

Even if your novel isn’t historical fiction or science fiction, finding an avenue for research can inspire. In my case, a textbook on criminology and Inside the Criminal Mind by Stanton E. Samenow, Ph.D. (Samenow is a great last name!) inspired pages of notes. Inside the Criminal Mind also showed me that many of the behaviors I had already written were right on track which felt great! It’s not often a writer manages to find her own positive feedback.

3. Names: A new fun technique for me– One of the most important things I have left to do is come up with names for the tertiary characters. Looking through lists of baby names or name engines online did not inspire me. I enjoyed looking through the most recent local candidates and trying to mix lasts with firsts, and talented friends have told me to look online for another country’s white pages, but these techniques were not what I needed either. Today, I found an unlimited fountain of names in my piles of old records. If you don’t have records, CD liners or movie credits will do just as well. Think of all the people that work behind the scenes to make music and film happen, then think about the multitude of combinations you can make by mixing and matching those first and last names.

For my example, I had a sampling of my old records and my parents old records. I had records from Sweden and France. I had a selection of Pop, Rock, Musicals and Classical. I made three columns in my notebook: Last names, Male character and Female character first names. This way my lists created unique randomized combinations as I wrote them down so when I look at it later, I won’t have to worry about using an actual name.

4. Those pages you don’t want numbered – When I send out my draft, I want to make it very clear to my first readers that I wrote a piece of fiction, so I created a page with the well known statement “All of the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. After typing it into the center of my new page after the title page, I had a major page numbering dilemma. This bugged me. I knew how to not number my cover page in Word, but I hadn’t figured out any extra pages until today. The magic? Section breaks.

How to: Delete your header. Create all the front pages you want: I created a disclaimer, but you might also want a couple quotes and a dedication; like I said this is for my first readers, so I might make a page of my expectations for reading time, editing/commenting expectations and easy directions for making notes inline. Once you know how many pages you do not want topped with a header or page number, make a section break. To do this in Word, leave your cursor at the end of the text that does not want a number, select the page layout tab, click on Page Breaks and scroll down to New Page. That will most likely create a break and a blank page. I recommend clicking on the Home tab and clicking on the paragraph symbol to see the backspaces needed to delete the extra page.

Once you have created a new section, click on the page you want as page one then click on the Insert tab and select Header. Make sure to click (unclick) Link to previous. Once you’ve created the header that you want, click pages and choose your style and placement then select format page numbers and select start at and enter 1. That should do it.

(I had to go back to the beginning of my first section and edit Header and delete it, then recreate the second header in the second section, but that is most likely because I was making changes instead of starting from scratch. Happy news, it worked).

So there you have it. The tips and tricks I am using to finish my revision and prepare for first readers. I hope you found something useful. Happy writing.

Nobody’s Perfect

Want to make me not at all interested in a character? Describe him, or her as beautiful and rich. I gave up on Mary Higgins Clark’s mysteries in middle school because I just couldn’t care about the plight of the wealthy, beautiful people any more. Isn’t it enough that they cover the screens of our T.V.s and movie theaters; that they create enough scandals to fill tabloids week after week? Honestly, do they have to pollute our fiction as well? This last week, I read a novel which included a very beautiful woman planning her wedding. Her father was a billionaire, of course, who had two helicopters. She went to have a moment to herself in a bar, but she had to keep refusing drinks from strangers because she was so beautiful. Then when her fiancé saw her before the wedding she was even more beautiful. Really? There was more beautiful to go? What did that add? One thing Americans learned through the economic collapse was that only 1% of the population holds the wealth. Now think of how many of those people would be described as beautiful. I would say the fictional population is a pretty skewed subset of our population.  And the perfect character problem does not only reside among the beautiful that are wealthy. There are also the perfectly skilled. Why would I want to read a story about a person who went to battle school and never lost a battle from his first day? Why would he go to battle school when he had nothing to learn? These perfect characters have nowhere to go and nothing to overcome which makes for a boring story. But worse than that, there is just no relating to them. I realize that some people like to fantasize about being some mass produced beauty aesthetic with unlimited resources and adoration, but when those stories are over the reader is left with an empty feeling of ineptitude. As a writer, one wants to hook the reader by creating ways for the reader to relate to the characters. Give your character some adult acne, back pain, a car that breaks down when it is least convenient, bills that are always due and an out of work family member on the couch and your writing might resonate with the not as privileged 99.75%.

Reality T.V. as fuel for character development

How do I develop a villain without making him, or her, a cliché bad guy? Tips I’ve read say to try to make him less one dimensional by giving him quirks and something about him that could be loveable, if he hadn’t gone so wrong. Yes, these tips are good, but why was my villain behaving so badly, if he was a loveable guy with fun quirks? How could my reader relate to behaviors that seemed so strange to me? I wasn’t finding examples for my villain in my own life, or in the faces of my acquaintances and friends, so where could I look? My villain in progress was a sociopath who was able to live a double life with no remorse. At first I didn’t have a feel for what he was feeling, or how to understand his motivations, but then I stumbled upon the show Hard Core Pawn. I watched it because the inexplicably erratic behaviors of the pawn store customers made me laugh, but after watching a marathon of episodes, it dawned on me that the hysterical people the bouncers were walking, and sometimes carrying, out the door all had something in common: a sense of entitlement that I could not wrap my head around. Who would walk into a store and demand money for worthless objects and then throw a fit and threaten the owner when he said no?  From the show, I got the impression: everyone in Detroit. But then I started thinking, someone like my character; someone who felt that the world owed him and he was going to demand his due. This overreaching sense of entitlement brought a new dimension to my villain. I recently thought about adding a disillusioned young adult whose mom  put her in pageants as a child (Toddlers & Tiaras), or a hoarder who won’t let anyone come to her house because she lives in piles of possessions and piles of debt (Hoarding: Buried Alive). I am not recommending focusing on any one reality persona (for example Si Robertson (Duck Dynasty), or any one of the Kardashians), too closely, but when looking for inspiration for your characters with bad behavior, a dose of scripted reality can be inspiring.