NaNoWriMo is a huge undertaking. It’s great to be proactive beforehand, but the only legal forms of preparation are outlining and character sketches. In the writing world, a character sketch is not a drawing but a useful tool used to develop characters before the writing process begins. Remember, we are writers: some readers live and breath by the characters we create. At the end of “sketching”, you should have a strong idea of your characters personality, weird quirks, and even physical traits! Last time, Courtney and Thea talked about their use (or lack thereof) of outlining. This week, they’re sitting down to talk about character sketches.
Q: Character sketches? You mean those things from junior high school? How does that belong in the epic writing contest that is NaNoWriMo?
Thea: This isn’t a boring junior high reading assignment. This time, you’re at the controls, deciding what goes into your character. Along with outlines, it’s the only other form of advance preparation that is officially allowed during NaNoWriMo. It’s a way to get involved in your novel before you can legally put pen to paper.
Courtney: Epic character sketches belong to Nano as chocolate belongs in milk! They make a mighty fine pair. Being prepared for NaNo makes crossing that 50k finish line a bit easier. If you plan before Nov 1st, when midnight strikes, you will be able to have a strong start. At the end of the “legal” planning stage, the writer should have an idea of what they are writing and who their characters are. Pre-nano planning is an opportunity to hash out some of the big details (ex: plot points) and think about the small ones (ex: character traits).
Q: Okay, not for kids. What do you put in them?
Thea: Anything and everything about your character!
I start with a simple list: Name, hopetown/planet, occupation, age, physical appearance, objective.
After that, I flesh it out even more. I give a one-paragraph write-up about who the character is, why she exists in the story, and what role she plays. If she has a background/special story, I’ll add more after. Then, I repeat for all other main characters.
Courtney: Everything that is important to your characters: name, age, looks, habits, crazy characteristics, and weird personality traits. Find out what makes your character tick and run with it. If you read our last post, you’ll know that I am about simplicity when it comes to outlining. With character sketching, my main goal is to build a solid foundation … but at the same time, keep it simple. Of course, being the little panster I am, I make sure to allow some wiggle room in my sketches. The character magic really takes place when I am in the writing zone and put them in crazy situations. I seem to gain a deeper understanding of their personalities then.
Q: We aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, but we are allowed to judge a novel by its characters. Can you give us any tips on creating interesting characters that readers fall in love with?
Thea: Make them flawed. Nobody wants to read about the constant triumphs of Miss PerfectSkirts and Sir HeroPants. Make them grow, change, and give them an understandable goal. I was having trouble with my villain until I realized that he needed to exist for more than being crazy. So, I gave him a past, fleshed out his goals, needs, and fears. Give them an inner conflict, a dark secret (something other than a crush, please) or a deep, burning regret. With a bit of work, you can have a breathing, three-dimensional character whose strengths and flaws will charm your readers.
Another thing: by no means should all of your character be perfect supermodels. Please don’t do this. If you do, please don’t use the word supermodel to describe them. I’ve seen this, and it isn’t pretty.
Courtney: Do not make your character perfect! Think about your literary favorites and what makes them special to you. Why do you enjoy reading them? There is nothing more boring than reading a character that doesn’t progress in some way throughout the story. Don’t get me wrong, some will always be considered “static” characters but not your main squeeze! My next suggestion is to skip the insta-love! Create some conflict between your characters. As a reader, I want to feel the tension! Make sure to know your characters. What would their reactions be in certain situations. Favorite foods? Are they obsessed with the color purple? Afraid of water? Be different! Understand your character and write someone who is unforgettable!
Q: That was some great advice, ladies! Now that we have a better understanding of what makes a character interesting, can you give us some examples of your favorite characters in novels? What makes them special?
Thea: I’ve been reading Crime and Punishment for the past couple of weeks. Dostoyevsky has always fascinated me, and his main character, Raskolnikov is captivating. Raskolnikov alternates between irritable, charitable and delusional–he swings between extremes of mood and emotion. The reading experience really lets you get inside his head, and the brilliant thing is that the character is completely unaware of how unstable he is. He has so little insight into his own behavior, but he’s so perfectly imperfect that he leaves an impact on me, every time I read it. (This is my third time reading it.)
Another favorite of mine is Paul Atreides, from Dune. He can see the future, but he’s also trapped by the future. He struggles against his upbringing and values of good, justice and stewardship over his people and the vision that he’ll eventually become a monster. H
is inner struggles are very deep.
Courtney: Whoa, that is a hard question! I am the type of reader that lives and breathes by characters!
Campbell Bradford from Michael Koryta’s novel, So Cold the River, has to be one of my favorites. Michael was able to create a character that was different, ghostly, and utterly evil. When Campbell spoke, I had literal chills on my arms. I loved the unpredictability and the control he had over others. Seriously, AWESOME! It is one of my favorite books ever!
This might be a given, but, I absolutely adore all of the characters in Harry Potter. If I had to choose just one, I would have to say Severus Snape.
Sigh! Snape was one character that was perfectly written. I despised him for actual years of my life! The dialogue he had, personality, and even his quirks made his hatred for Harry so incredibly believable. At the end of the series, I had a complete understanding of what makes a character, in my eyes, beautiful. He was delightfully mean, confident, powerful, and completely misunderstood all at the same time. Perfect!
The countdown to NaNoWriMo has officially begun. There are only 6 days left to finish your outlines and character sketches. Make sure to stock your cabinets full of chocolate and coffee, and relax because full literary abandonment starts next week and lasts for 30 days! Are you ready? If not, you still have time! Make sure to visit every Friday throughout the month of November for more NaNoWriMo survival tips and tricks from Thea Gregory and Courtney Worth Young!