S2, E43: Prepping for NaNo: Characters

For the next segment of prepping for NaNo, it’s time to talk characters! The best stories have well-developed major characters, so today I talk about some of the things that makes for compelling characters, why its important to know your characters well, and ways to get to know (and thus flesh out) your characters better.


Struggling with anxiety and getting overwhelmed. H1 needed first battery change, so got about 8 hours recording time out of the one it came with

Main Topic:

Continuing with the prepping for NaNo series – today we’re talking characters!

  • While a well-written plot is important to having a good story, even the best plot will fall flat without good characters!
  • The best stories feature good, well-developed main characters that have multiple layers and depth.
  • Think about some of your favorite stories and the characters they feature.
    • Would Iron Man be nearly as fun to watch if Tony Stark was bland and ordinary?
    • Would the Hunger Games have even worked if Katniss hadn’t been the sort of girl to volunteer to take her sister’s place?
    • Would Little Women move us if Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy were just dull people moving from scene to scene?
  • Note: Talking major characters here – background characters who just pop on for a moment, like a waitress serving a table at a restaurant, can remain pretty bland – they aren’t part of the story
  • So what makes well-developed characters?
    • People
      • Regardless of actual species, characters are what we might consider people in terms of nature, meaning they are different, unique, etc. It’s the same with most living creatures – you can take two dogs, raise them together, treat them exactly the same, and they will still have their own unique quirks and natures. Think about identical twins – anyone who knows them well can still tell them apart after a few minutes because even they are not 100% identical!
    • Originality
      • Except in parodies and satire, one-dimensional, clichéd, and flat characters tend to be dull to read or write. That isn’t to say you can’t base characters on known archetypes, such as the “chosen one” or “the dumb muscle” but you need put your own twist on them to ensure they are not just another one we’ve all seen and read before.
    • Personality
      • It goes without saying, this is one of the most important aspects of a character! If a character doesn’t have an interesting personality, nothing else will work. This doesn’t mean they have to be likable or even “exciting”, just interesting.
      • Hannibal Lecter isn’t anyone’s idea of a nice guy, but his twisted personality still draws your attention!
    • Flaws and Traits
      • Characters need to have “good points”, I.e. traits, virtues, etc that people will usually admire about them. For example, being loyal or neat. However, perfect characters, also known as Mary Sues, are just plain boring and completely unrealistic – there is no such thing as a perfect person! So characters also need flaws, things most people don’t necessarily like about them, like being selfish or quick tempered. Everyone has good points and bad points, and ideally your characters should have a nice mix of both.
    • Depths and Layers
      • Just as you and I act differently around different people and in different circumstances, so should your characters. Perhaps the sweet as can be teacher at school is a tyrant at home. Or the cold-blooded killer goes home to a much loved family and kids.
    • CompellingBackstory
      • Your characters weren’t born when they first appear in the novel (okay, unless they literally were born right there), so they have lives before the story began; that past history is a large part of what makes them who they are when they appear and will guide their reactions to the circumstances in your novel.
    • Variety
      • The characters in your story should each be distinct, easy to tell apart from one another, and unique from each other. If everything about your characters is so similar you could just use a single character sheet for them all, they need more variety!
    • Development
      • Another big major important thing about characters is that they need to change over the course of the story. If they come out at the end of the story exactly the same as they went in, then what was the point of it all? This doesn’t mean they have to suddenly flip personalities or the like, but a compelling story is going to have an affect on those in it. Do they learn some valuable lesson, develop new skills, make new friends? Or in the case of many tragedies, learn from their mistakes too late?
  • The short version of all that is that being able to write about good, compelling characters requires knowing them, beyond just what ends up in your novel. Some of us have just ridiculously awesome memories or rapid generating minds and can spout off incredible amounts of detail about their at the drop of a hat. For the other 99% of us, there are several methods you can use to get to know your characters better.
    • Character worksheets and questionnaires – basically forms you fill out for your characters that start with basic things (age, hair, eye color, hair color, appearance) then move intoweigher topics that may have a role in your story (religious and political believes, goals, fears, etc.)
      • Some are relatively simple, one page forms. Others are nearly ridiculous in detail spanning 5-10 pages.
      • If you Google character worksheets, you’ll find tons of options to choose from and I linked to some in the show notes
      • When using worksheets and questionnaires, sometimes questions really have no meaning at all for your characters or story – for example, I see some that ask about favorite TV shows and films. If your story is a historical, obviously those weren’t around then! And even in modern settings, I have never had a story where knowing that would be the least bit important or worth knowing, other than Kazuki’s love of Iron Chef in Aisuru 😉
    • Character interviews
      • Similar in some ways as the worksheets and questionnaires, this method involves “interviewing” your character and then writing out the responses in their voice. It can seem a little weird at first, but it can also be a great way to get into your character’s “heads” so you can better bring out their voice on the page (particularly if you’ll be doing 1st person!)
      • Along a similar vein, having a mental (or written) conversation with them – if you sat down to talk to your characters what would you talk about?
    • Blogging as the character(s)
      • Basically the character (or characters) become writers on your blog and post as themselves (or some set up separate blogs for this); obviously it is still you the writer doing all the posts, but again it is a way of really deep diving into your character’s heads and making their voice become more natural for you
      • Now, I admit it, this one I don’t fully understand doing a full blown blog versus an interview as it seems like a lot of work for little payoff and it’s too much blurring between fiction and reality
    • Picture References
      • Building up a scrapbook of shorts by collecting pictures (usually of celebrities or stock photo sites) to find people that look similar to your characters as a reference point
      • Alternatively, if you have the necessary skills, draw/sketch them yourself for even better images (and potential fan goodies later 😉 )
    • Act Them Out
      • Yes, really, getting up and basically pretending to be that character and acting out scenes (either from your novel or before)
      • Would either do this in private or with very understanding roommates/SOs!
      • This is one of the methods I use 🙂 And no, I can’t act worth a darn but it’s the mental stuff thats important here
  • Bunch of links in show notes for these
  • Share what little I can of Duality

Progress Report: Nothing to really report beyond getting Aisuru to Word and mostly formatted; still need to add the footnotes