The Road to NaNoWriMo: Novel Prep (Part 1: Character)

November creeps ever closer, and with it comes that great and terrible event, NaNoWriMo.

Last time we discussed ways of generating story ideas. As we continue this series of posts about preparing for NaNoWriMo, we’re going to start getting our hands dirty, putting those ideas to use.

Loosely speaking, there are two ways of writing a book. The first is called discovery writing, or pantsing (as in: writing by the seat of your pants). With this method, a writer starts writing the book with little or no preparation, letting the story take him where it wills.

The second method is to create an outline before the writing begins (writers who do this are called outliners or plotters). Someone who is a heavy plotter might come up with a full, extensive, scene-by-scene outline that’s tens of thousands of words long before they even start writing.

But which are you, a plotter or a pantser? If you’ve never written anything as long as a novel before, you might have no idea which method is best for you. Not to mention that the best method can often change from book to book.

In my opinion, a first-time novelist should steer clear of both extremes. When you’ve never written anything as long and complex as a novel before, you probably don’t have a good enough grasp on the entire story to plot out a book in meticulous detail. Likewise, a new author facing a blank page and no preparation may waste a lot of time and words floundering about, trying to write themselves into a story. Or worse, they may become overwhelmed and quit altogether.

I think a good idea for new NaNoers is to come up with a few characters and a handful of important scenes beforehand and let the rest fill itself in as you write.

So here I present my patent-pending guide to basic story preparation for novelists, shamelessly stolen from numerous sources and cobbled together for your pleasure. I’ve split it into two posts. Today’s post focuses mainly on character. Next time, we’ll have a look at planning out those key scenes you’ll need to build the rest of your novel around.

This guide applies mostly to genre novels (sci fi, fantasy, mystery, thriller, romance—basically anything where the story is a strong focus), but with a little adaptation it could probably work for more literary novels as well.

Novel Prep Part 1: Character

At the heart of your novel is a character. Your protagonist. I believe you should have a good grasp on your character before you start writing. Your character will undoubtedly grow on the page and take you in unexpected directions, but that’s no excuse not to put down a solid foundation at the beginning.

So how should you find out about your character? Should you write down extensive notes on hair colour, eye colour, height, scars, sexy piercings, favourite food, backstory, most embarrassing childhood memory?

Well, if you want to. But far more important than any of that is to define your character’s goals, motivations, and conflicts. These are the three things that will propel your protagonist through his or her story. Let’s look at each of these items in more detail.

Goals; or, What Does Your Character Want?

Your character probably wants a lot of things. Most people do. But what are they striving for right now? What is most important to them over the course of this book?

It can be helpful two define two main goals for your character: an external goal and an internal goal.
The external goal is usually something fixed and tangible. Something that has an obvious end point. If a character wants to solve a murder and catch the killer, it’s easy to tell when that has been achieved. Same goes for stopping the alien invasion, or getting into that hot guy’s pants. When it happens, it’s obvious.

Your protagonist’s external goal is usually the main story question. Will he succeed in the thing he’s trying to do? When the detective catches the killer, that’s usually the end of the story. The main goal has been achieved. Now everyone gets cake.

On the other hand, the character’s internal goal is usually something more personal and emotional. It may not have a definite completion point, making it a lot more nebulous than the external goal. If the character wants to atone for her sins, learn to respect herself, or gain self awareness, that’s her internal goal.

Internal goals are often subconscious: the character herself may not even know that’s what she wants.

It can make things especially juicy when a character’s external and internal goals conflict with each other. Maybe the detective wants to stop the murderer before he kills again, but she also wants to repair her relationship with her husband. It’s easy to see how over the course of the novel, these two goals could come into conflict, with the detective forced to work long hours in a dangerous situation and then suffering the consequences in her relationship.

Goals may change over the course of the story (and frequently do). The protagonist may achieve her first external goal (e.g. find the murderer) only to realise that there is an even larger plot afoot, and the external goal is now to unravel the conspiracy.

Likewise, an internal goal may change as the protagonist changes. He may begin by trying to drown his guilt, but later he may realise that he has to face up to his sins and forgive himself for them. The character’s arc (how they change over the story) is often tied to a change in their internal goals.

Motivation; or, Why Does the Character Want What They Want?

It’s not enough for the character to have a goal. There has to be a reason they want to achieve that goal. In a few cases (most commonly with villains) that motivation might be unfathomable to us. The Joker does what he does for reasons of his own, reasons no sane man can understand. But in general, your protagonist needs a motivation that makes sense.

In some cases, the motivation might be simple. Your character might simply be doing her job. Or the motivation might be so obvious and universal that it needs little explaining. In a survival story, the character wants to survive because that is a natural human reaction. Nothing particularly complicated about that.

But even in these cases, it might be worth digging a little deeper and seeing if that motivation can be beefed up a bit. Sure, it might be the detective’s job to find the killer. But maybe she has some personal drive to catch the bad guy because the crimes are particularly heinous. Or maybe the detective once made a mistake which allowed the killer to go free and continue his killing spree, so the detective has a personal motivation as well as a professional one.

Different characters may have the same goal, but different motivations. They might be in it for money, or vengeance, or to protect their family, or to regain something that was lost, or to fulfil a promise to a friend.

A character’s motivation should probably make sense to the audience, but that doesn’t mean that it has to be some generic, universal motivation. Personal motivations can be some of the most powerful when it comes to making a character unique. On the other hand, more universal motivations can be powerful for connecting with a wide audience. It’s up to you which route you go, and really depends on the type of story you’re trying to tell.

All this might seem simple, but motivation is a place where a lot of beginning writers slip up. Well-defined motivations can go a long way to make a character seem less like a character and more like a real person. You don’t need to obsess about it, but keep your character’s motivations in mind as you go forward.

Conflict; or, What’s Going to Stop the Character Getting What They Want?

Finally, we come to the third key aspect of character planning: conflict. You’ve probably heard this a million times before, but it’s true: conflict is the core of any story.

There’s a common bit of narrative theory that says there are only a few types of conflict: man against man, man against nature, man against himself. Throw in man against machine and man against the supernatural if you want to expand that out a bit. These types of conflicts are what we’re looking at here.

Your character has a goal and motivations. But something or someone has to get between your character and his goals. That’s where conflict comes in.

We’ve already talked about conflict between external and internal goals (essentially, this is man against himself). But here you want to think about what other types of conflict might stop your character getting what she wants.

If your story has a clear antagonist, that’s a pretty obvious bit of conflict right there. The detective wants to catch the murderer before he kills again, but the murderer wants to evade capture and keep on killing. Their goals are in conflict, and most likely the detective will not succeed in her goal until the climax of the novel.

But conflict can also occur between the protagonist and other characters within the novel, including characters that are on her side. No two people will agree on everything all the time, and they definitely shouldn’t in a novel. Conflict between friends or lovers can be just as powerful as conflict between the hero and the villain.

Conflict can also exist between the protagonist and his environment. Whether the character is trapped on a desert island or struggling to survive a zombie apocalypse, the world around him is seemingly bent on thwarting his goal of survival.

Look to your character’s goals and motivations to determine possible sources of conflict within the novel. Conflict might arise that is completely unrelated to those goals and motivations, but it will have much greater emotional impact on the reader if it’s related to what the character wants.

Now What?

You’ve thought about goals, motivations, and conflict. Now what should you do with that information?

First and foremost: write it down. I know it might not seem like much to remember, but write it down anyway. Do this at least for your main character, and potentially for any other major characters you know will be important as well.

Even if you’re unsure about a few aspects, write something down and leave blank anything you don’t know yet. You can always fill it in later.

Keep these goals, motivations, and conflicts somewhere you can refer to them easily as you continue planning and writing your novel. Pin them to the wall beside your computer, or keep a document saved somewhere you can access it.

As you move forward, refer back to this information anytime you get stuck. You’ll be surprised how helpful it can be to have this stuff written down to remind yourself what all this is about.

What about all those others aspects of characterisation: personality, physical appearance, flaws, skills, backstory? Feel free to plan out some of that stuff and write it down along with what we’ve discussed above.

It might be helpful to have a page on each major character, with their goals, motivations, and conflicts clearly described, followed by some notes on physical appearance and personality and background. It’s really up to you how in-depth you go with all that. You’ll undoubtedly learn more about your characters as you actually start writing the novel, so feel free to leave spaces here and there that you’ll fill in later. You don’t need to map out your character’s entire life history before you start (unless you want to).

The Golden Rule

I’ve talked about what I think is a good way to plan out your characters before you start writing, both for beginners and people who have written before. But that’s all this really is: my thoughts. As with any advice, take what seems helpful and leave the rest.

This post went a little long (turns out trying to condense my entire outlining method into a few hundred words is tough—go figure), so next time I’ll finish up this novel prep discussion by talking about how to come up with a basic plot skeleton to give your characters something to do during the novel.

But before we go onto that, it’s important for me to emphasise the golden rule: everything we’re doing here is flexible. This outline is just a guideline, a rough map of the journey ahead. You are under no obligation to stick dogmatically to these character guides when you start writing. They’re here to help and point you in the right direction, but you shouldn’t feel that you’re a slave to them.

I’m always happy to discuss this stuff in the comments below or on my Facebook page, so get in touch! Next time: plot outlines and the seven key scenes. Until then, get thinking about your characters, all you crazy NaNoers out there.

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