As we prepare for National Novel Writing Month, which officially begins November 1, let’s start at the heart of every story: the characters.
I’ll forever come back to the same tip I read in the first fiction-writing craft book I picked up. “Story is what happens to character.” That’s what James V. Smith Jr. wrote in The Writer’s Little Helper, and I’ve taken it to heart the past decade.
It makes sense, right? Pride & Prejudice could’ve easily been a story about dances and fine country estates if not for Lizzie and Darcy being there to show us the complexities of the 19th century British class structure (and to make us swoon). Stars Wars would’ve been big spaceships and little spaceships firing back and forth at each other without the likes of the Skywalkers (and Han Solo, another swoon). And Goonies would’ve been a walk through smelly sewers if we didn’t have a rich cast of developed characters who made us care about whether or not they would survive their treasure hunt and stay in their homes.
So I’ll repeat it: Story is what happens to characters.
That’s why I begin all of my stories by taking time to develop characters. The times I haven’t done this, I’ve found myself getting stuck wondering “What would this character do now that they’re here?” (And, full disclosure, sometimes I still screw up the decision on my first attempt, but it’s easier to know what does and doesn’t work when I edit.)
There are plenty of ways to develop dynamic characters to guide your story. Here’s how I do it. (As with any tips I offer from here on out, please take them or leave them as you like.)
1. Know your characters’ GMC (Goal, Motivation, Conflict)
This hails from Debra Dixon’s book, but establishing your characters’ internal and external goals, motivations, and conflicts is probably the best way to not only understand your characters but the journey you’ll send them on.
For example, in my book Let It Be Me, James (the hero) had a GMC that looked like this:
- Goal: Find peace on his own. Get his groove back.
- Motivation: His ex. She still has a hold on him, which makes him doubt his heart even more.
- Conflict: Despite his best efforts, he can’t get his new assistant out of his head.
- Goal: Get fired so he can move back to the UK.
- Motivation: His ex married his colleague and it pains them (and makes him feel like a loser) to see them together.
- Conflict: He’s the department’s golden boy. Nothing he does will get him fired. And now he has a new assistant who is determined to keep him on track.
From there, I was able to get how he would interact in any given scene and why he might act the way he did.
2. Make before and after charts for your characters
Another way to think about the journey your characters will take is to make a T-chart with “Before” on one column and “After” on the other. From there, it goes pretty much how it sounds. In the first column, list the state of your character at the beginning of the story. In the second column, write where you want them to be when you type “the end”.
I can’t really use one of my own books without spoiling the story, so let’s go with one of my favorite TV shows. At the beginning of 30 Rock, Liz Lemon is working on a weekly, live TV show ala SNL (which doesn’t get great viewership). At the end, she’s running a sitcom that seems to be successful. And in the beginning, she’s dating the awful Dennis and wants to have a family. At the end, (SPOILER ALERT) she’s married to James Marsden and has adopted two children who are pint-sized versions of Jenna and Tracey. The story is everything that happens in the middle.
3. Create a basic character sketch
This is where you can get to know your characters on an even deeper level. This is where you decide everything from what your character looks like to the way they take their coffee. You can take it even deeper by delving into their backgrounds. Did they go to school? For how long and where? What was life like for them growing up? What’s their best memory? Their worst.
Even if some of the details in your sketch never directly come into play in your manuscript, it helps you know how they might react–what they’ll think, say, and do–at different points in the story.
You can find templates for character sketches by doing a Google search. I’ve tried several, but I usually default back to creating my own, complete with the information I know I’ll need while writing. Some of my friends like to get super deep, but I keep a little mystery with mine as well. This sounds so over-the-top to say, but a lot of times the characters reveal more about themselves to me as I plot and write.
I hope these tips are helpful. I’ll be back with more tips to prep for National Novel Writing Month in the weeks ahead.