#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!

#WriterinMotion – the brainstorm

rahul-pandit-CDrP01O2n-w-unsplash resized

prompt photograph by Rahul Pandit

After my first thoughts, I printed out the image on a nice piece of matte photo paper. The colors printed even more vibrantly and got me thinking about color meaning and how I will use the colors in my story. I recently talked about specifics of color naming and thought I would start there.

The Colors

I explored interesting color names over at Sherman-William’s paint colors and explored color meanings at Canva color meanings and color symbolism on Wikipedia.

Names

Red: Stop, Showstopper, Tanager, Poinsettia, Habanero Chile, Peppery, Stolen Kiss, Beetroot, Wild Poppy, Cayenne, Cherry, Tomato, Burgundy, Blackberry,  Brick

Orange: Obstinate Orange, Knockout Orange, Determined Orange, Raucous Orange, Husky Orange, Rhumba Orange, Adventure Orange, Serape, Invigorate, Navel, Carnival, Sun Salutation

Yellow: Gusto Gold,  Goldfinch, Lemon Twist, Daisy, Forsythia, Icy Lemonade, Pineapple Cream, Sunny Veranda, Cheerful, Goldenrod, Citronella, Lively Yellow,  Confident Yellow

Green: Center Stage, Electric Lime, Direct Green, Envy, Lucky, Greenbelt, Jitterbug Jade, Verdant, Grasshopper, Olive, Gecko, Parakeet, Organic Green, Pickle, Julep, Lark Green, Frosted Emerald, Emerald, Mesclun Green, Picnic, Frolic, Romaine, Kiwi, Reclining Green, Oakmoss, Artichoke

Blue: Turquoise, Aqua, Splashy, Teal, Calypso, Dynamic Blue, Bluebell, Sky, Celestial, Mariner, Fountain, Freshwater, Aquarium, Periwinkle, Indigo, Navy, Powder Blue, Adrift, Mountain Stream, Moonmist

And that’s just to name a few. Looking at how many of the color names come from flowers and foods, I thought about how my characters might choose color names from their surroundings: perhaps red is foxtail and yellow is butterfly, green is fern or tree frog or unripe berry.

I also see this as the beginning of a word collection. There are some vivid words in those color names like “obstinate”, “determined”, “invigorate” and “raucous.”  As I chose color names, connections and meanings began to form, but now I want to look at some traditional meanings for the colors in the image.

Meanings

Red: vitality and celebration, evil and destruction, love, passion and lust, anger/wrath, power, violence, aggression, danger, heat, good luck, happiness, importance

Orange: fresh, youthful and creative, activity, energy, socialization, healthy, attention, safety, warmth, excitement

Yellow: sunshine, joy, cowardice or fear, caution, optimistic, playful, happy, mental clarity and intellect,

Green: nature, healing, soothing, fertility, renewal, growth, relaxing, money, greed, wealth, prestige sickness, jealousy, inexperienced/new, youth, zest

Blue: trust, cleanliness, loyalty, tranquility, serenity, stability, inspiration, wisdom

Most of these colors can have conflicting meanings. That could come in useful to show differing viewpoints and how perception can completely change an image.

Characters

For a while now, I’ve been working on a tool to help me quickly brainstorm characters that are unique, interesting and multi-dimensional. I call it The Character Creation Spreadsheet.

While I was reading The Playful Way to Serious Writing by Roberta Allen, her exercises inspired me to start a spreadsheet of possible occupations, physical character traits, hobbies, fears and minor mishaps. I liked the idea of creating unique and interesting characters through randomizing different traits and finding how they fit together.

I started by making columns of last names then first names, followed by occupations, hobbies, physical traits and fears. My spreadsheet is ever-growing and now includes religions, philosophies, causes and countries. I can choose to include as many or as few of the columns as I want. For each column, I use a random number generator to select the aspects of my character. When I’m done, I evaluate how that character may or may not work in my story. Let’s give it a try. My first column, last names, goes to row 241, so in my random number generator I enter lower limit 2, upper limit 241 and get 3 = last name Grabner.

  1. Grabner, Alyssum, herbalist, the youngest of way too many kids, she became an aunt early in life, dropped out of school, but got her G.E.D.; she has always been disobedient; she has a club foot and a hooked nose; her hobbies are coloring and collecting teabags; her fears are ego-death (losing herself) and clowns; she has a mishap becoming drenched in a storm which leads to the epiphany that the journey is more important then the goal. Her story emotion is wariness. 

    Sometimes the random selections don’t work together,  so I just keep hitting enter to get another random number until I get a selection that seems to work ( for example Alyssum’s occupation took three tries).

    Sounds like an interesting character, someone who could possibly live in that small dwelling or happen upon it while trying to find some particular herbs. At this point, I will look up the name meanings and history to glean more possibilities for her genealogy, family and history: Grabner – German to dig (especially “a digger of graves or ditches”). Alyssum is the name of a group of plants. The flower is said to symbolize beauty, but I like the meaning from the Greek alyssos meaning “curing madness” because it was thought to cure rabies in dogs.

    All sorts of neat stuff there. I’m liking her name, her hobbies, surprising character traits and her occupation bringing her to discover the little house. I’m already hearing distant echoes of Goldilocks and Snow White.

  2. Luckman, Josette,  youngest of three, online degree, takes self too seriously, can’t keep a secret; she has false teeth and a shaved head; she enjoys table-top and role-playing games and collects flowers; she fears mutilation and animals; she bangs her head leading to an epiphany that you aren’t what people say you are. Her story emotion is Eagerness.
  3. Palmberg, Eugene, single father, greasy vast guru, used to be a customs officer, gloomy, unconfined;  he is covered in freckles and has shaky hands; his hobbies are swimming and fencing; he fears separation and books; he steps in dog poop which leads to the epiphany that Beliefs are nothing to be proud of. His story emotion is amusement/denial

A good step at this point is to look up the characters’ story emotions in The Emotion Thesaurus and think about how the characters will physically show those emotions. Do they have little ticks, physical habits, do those emotions come out in the way they speak, habitual phrases?

POV

Now that I have some idea of who my characters will be, it’s a good time to think about my possible points of view. Who do I want to tell this story? My three adult characters will be equally important in the action of the plot. Though the plot is focused on the child character (Eugene is a single father), he or she will be talked about or around, the child won’t have a say, or will s/he? Point of view ideas:

First:

  • Point of view of Alyssum: the character who discovers, stumbles upon, the cataloger, the reporter.
  • Point of view of Josette: the instigator of change, the representative of society, normalcy, expectation, government intervention.
  • Point of view of Eugene: representation of free will, leaving societal norms, parenting outside of social norms, doing the best he can with what he has through a difficult situation, standing his ground.
  • Eugene’s child: the unseen, unheard subject of all of the conflict.

Second:

  • Outside narrator: Imagine you live in this idyllic setting . . .
  • or Imagine yourself a single father . . .
  • or Walk for a moment in Eugene Palmberg’s shoes, now slip into Alyssum Grabner’s boots . . .

Third:

  • Omniscient: Maybe the hills tell the story, or the land/ nature tells the story, the ferns are omniscient or get some info from the whispering green ash?
  • Close: same considerations as first. I think the contrasting/ not completely reliable/ biased viewpoints of either Alyssum or Josette will be the most interesting.

Surprisingly, I like that last second person POV idea, and the telling in first person from   Eugene’s child’s POV could be powerful, but I’ll probably tell this story from Alyssum or Josette in first or third.

Time to start journaling and letting them talk.

plotting with tarot for writer in motion

Plot

The moment I randomly selected Palmberg, Eugene, single father, my story idea became clear. I can picture my three main characters and how the conflict of a life-changing moment for all of them will present itself. I can see how my characters’ occupations, hobbies, and fears will escalate the conflict, so instead of pulling out all of my plotting tools, I think I’ll see what Plotting with tarot brings to the table.

Using  Mark Teppo’s interpretation of the Celtic Cross for plotting from Jump Start Your Novel, here’s my plot:

  1. The Protagonist: Five of Swords
  2. The Opposing Factor: Page of Wands
  3. The Root Cause: Death
  4. Immediate Past: Ace of Swords
  5. The Goal: Wheel of Fortune
  6. Immediate Future: Temperance
  7. My intent: The Fool
  8. How the outside world sees protagonist: Three of Wands
  9. The guide: The Hierophant
  10. The outcome: The Empress

My interpretation: My protagonist card indicates engagement in conflict and suggests disagreement with others that leads to hostility and tension. Despite the fact that my protagonist thinks s/he has won, s/he may still lose because s/he has annoyed or hurt the people argued with, creating a path to isolation. The opposing factor, the cause of this conflict, is someone who believes they have made a discovery. The root cause of the situation is not a literal death, but a major life change. My protagonist’s life has been turned upside down and s/he is trying to make a new start with the little left. My protagonist is facing the reality of the situation with a goal of wisdom and self-understanding and trying to see hope in the fact that the wheel of fortune turns and its time for the bad to turn to good. However, the immediate future is someone arriving to create balance through a union of dualities. My protagonist’s ability to let things go and be amused by others’ hang-ups which is the only way to cope at the moment, becomes a conflict with those that see balance differently.

My intent for writing this story is to come to the page and the project with unlimited potential. I want to be open, joyful and accepting of every aspect of the experience and grow through each step of the journey, returning with the elixir that will improve all of my stories.

The outside world sees my protagonist as a man on a cliff looking at distant mountains, as someone opportunities would widen horizons in many areas. They think s/he could open his/her mind and embrace change.

Traditional values and institutions, an embrace of the conventional, a certain desire to follow a well established process, adapting to certain well-established systems and beliefs leads the entire story to connect with beauty and happiness of life, femininity, expression, creativity and nurturing are the culmination of this story.

My reaction: I love how card one defined how the story will open in action and conflict. I now have a better understanding of my protagonist, antagonists, the conflicts and perhaps the resolution. The affirmation of my intentions for joining this project was a nice bonus!

I now have so much to let simmer in the brain-pan.

Tomorrow, I’ll share more plotting and outlining. For me, today proved that beginning with creating characters leads to easy plotting.