Friday, 15 October 2010

Writing Exercise #2 - Building Characters and Preparing for NaNoWriMo

As I've already pointed out, NaNoWriMo is just about two weeks away and it's high time to prepare a story worthy of a month's sweat, blood and tears. I have to admit that I've thought more about what kind of snacks I'm going to buy for NaNo than what I'm going to write, but I intend to remedy that this weekend. I've got a basic plot, which is in dire need of fleshing out. I'm going to start with the characters. In order to build strong, three-dimensional characters, you need to think about more than what they look like and how they act - you have to figure out their motivation for what they do and how they react in situations that you haven't met with yourself (unless you're writing about yourself, then it's much easier, I should imagine).

However, it's not the easiest thing in the world to know why your characters do what they do. Your own motivation and that of the person you're creating isn't the same. This means that just because you want your character to go to a bar one night in order to meet her hero, you can't just tell yourself that she feels like going to a bar. Perhaps she's been persuaded by a friend - but then you have to know why that friend is so insistent on inviting your character. On the other hand, if she has had a particularly awful day at work and she wants to drown her sorrows just like her father used to do after a day's work, her motivation is much more obvious to the reader. It has to be deeper than simply you knowing that your character wants to do something; it has to be a reason apparent to the reader as well.

When you're building a character, start with the basics. Begin by writing one sentence each on your character, describing their personality. E.g.
"Jenny is a bad-ass, very intelligent woman who knows everything about weapons but cannot let people come close to her out of fear for them not liking her when they penetrate her surface."
"Karl is a chronic underachiever who works best with his hands and enjoys a sandwich for lunch every day."
These descriptions aren't particularly original. In fact, they could apply to any b-movie or crappy novel characters. It's just a start though, and we'll build on them from here. Next we add more traits to the characters, trying to build them and give them a clearer personality.
"Jenny cannot hold down a job because she has a tendency to scare anyone willing to employ her. She also gets physically violent when she gets mad."
"Karl enjoys working hard and works out almost every day before going on twelve hour shifts. He knows he looks good but doesn't flaunt it." 
 Further, all characters have flaws. No one is perfect, because perfection is boring - however much we strive to achieve it. Now, I already have some flaws in my characters, but I'm going to continue working on them. In some cases you might want to give a character a major flaw, while others can have many smaller faults. I generally recommend the last, but I do have a character in a story who is far too perfect to have more than two flaws. She does seem too perfect, but since that was my intention, I'm not going to change it.

Lastly, all characters have secrets. These might not be any that you express in your novel, but it's good to know them because they might affect how your characters act in certain situations.

"Jenny learnt how to fight from her father who was in and out of jail, and made a living as a hit man for a while, and other times as a petty criminal. Jenny isn't her real name, but a new identity she used to hide her criminal record."
"Karl has a crush on Jenny but doesn't do anything about it because he has never been able to hold up a long term relationship, and he thinks she deserves someone who can really care for her." 

Now that you know more about your characters, it's time to continue with the motivational aspects of their personalities. It helps to split motivation into internal and external: things they do because of something that is done to them and things they do because of something inside of them. Karl might practice playing chess because he wants to beat Jenny and make her stop teasing him about it, and Jenny might tease Karl about being bad at chess because she thinks making him feel subordinate to her will make his crush on her go away.

When building your characters' motivation, remember:

"Motivation is the past. 
Goal is the future.
Conflict is the present."
Without these three aspects, a character will seem flat, empty and unrealistic. Keep them in mind, and your story will become stronger simply because of the characters you have in them.

A side note: In my opinion, Jane Austen is the master of building and describing characters, so if you want to have an example of wonderfully created characters, read any of her books.

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