One thing I can tell you right off the bat is there’s no secret weapon, no one definitive process that will get your novel out of your head and onto the bookshelves, whether those shelves are housed in a brick and mortar place like Barnes & Noble, or the virtual shelves of Amazon or Smashwords. The only real secret, which isn’t a secret at all, is all it takes is your unlimited imagination, a little planning and a smattering of discipline.
Some of you may have completed NaNoWriMo inNovember and still many more of you may have an unfinished outline or manuscript sitting on your shelf collecting dust. For this workshop you can either use the rough draft you started with NaNoWriMo, or the story you began and got stuck on, or begin completely fresh. No idea is a bad idea, well, except for the ones where you end up saying “You know, I really shouldn’t have done that…”
The thing is, no matter what stage you’re at with your novel project, this workshop will help you gain some direction and show you where to tweak and add some polish. Who knows what treasure you have holding in your hands right now? It could very well be the next bestseller.
Six Weeks…and then some
Six weeks is approximately a quarter of the time it took us to write Loyalties. Six weeks is three times the amount of time you need to change a habit. Six weeks is all you need to get yourself in the mindset and set your course to write your novel.
If any of you out there are like me, you may find yourself overwhelmed by the immensity of completing a novel. You start thinking ahead to all the work that’s involved and end paralyzing yourself right into inaction. That’s why we’ve broken it down into weekly lessons and exercises.
For the next few weeks we’ll be posting a topic that represents the core foundations of a good story. Each topic builds on the next and if you miss one, no need to worry. You can jump in if you’ve arrived at the party late, or you can go back to the previous topic and review. You can also work at your own pace. Don’t feel rushed or under the gun. At the very foundation of this workshop is the ability to free your mind enough to let out all those great characters and plot lines you have tucked away in there. A little direction goes a long way to achieving that.
And what about those weeks in between topics? For every topic introduced we’ll have a little exercise to go along with it. These discussion topics will be posted the following week and you can share your homework with the rest of us here. You didn’t expect us to do all the work, did you? Of course you’ll have some homework!
It Starts With a Character — And It Starts Now!
So where does it all start? What’s the one true spark that gets the story going? The character. To be specific, your protagonist, your Hero. The guy (or gal) that everything revolves around. Think about all the books you’ve read over the years, what do you miss most after the story’s been told? You miss those characters. Over the course of the story you’ve gotten to know them. You feel an affinity for them. You care about them. And when you finally get to that last page you may find yourself starting to miss them just a little.
Sort of like saying goodbye to a new friend. Then what happens when the next book comes out? Sure you want to know what the story’s about, but is that what’s really pulling you back? It’s the characters who do that. You’ve built an vested interest in them and now you want to see what they get themselves into this time. Your friends are back and now it’s adventure time.
Why Should We Care?
So many things go into creating a good character and by “good” I mean one who becomes memorable in the reader’s heart and mind. Yes, villains can be good characters too. Good in an oh-so-very bad way. If you love to hate that villain then the writer has done their job well.
But more on the baddies later.
Right now we’re talking about your Hero. Heroes don’t have to be epic right from the start. Some of the best heroes I’ve read are the ones who have very real flaws and obstacles in their way. While the little details like physical appearance, background, hopes, fears, ect. are crucial, there is one question and one question only that you need to answer: Why should I care?
As much as the “What If” question is important to your plot, the “Why should I care” is the crux of every character. So what if your character has a deadly fear of spiders, or is afraid of the dark, or has a scar on his chin…why does he have those things and why should I care about it?
For every bit of background and for every personality trait you must have an underlying reason that makes that element so. When you’re writing your story you don’t introduce a character unless there’s a reason for them being there. You don’t drop a clue when it’s not going to pan out later. The same goes for your character. Everything you create for him has to have a reason for being.
Back to our examples. If you were to write “Joe saw a spider on the wall and freaked out.” Okay. Big deal, right? But what if the reader learned ahead of time that when Joe was little he was dared to stick his hand into a hole in a rock wall and it was full of nasty webs and a nest full of spiders?
That makes a difference now, doesn’t it? You understand where the fear started, you may even sympathize with Joe and his arachnophobia, and YOU CARE. For better or worse, you care.
The Basic Concept
With that in mind, let’s start with the basic building blocks of the character. The very first thing you do is write a one or two line character summary. Let’s take our hero from Loyalties, Cole Morrison: playboy pilot whose never had a serious relationship in his entire life.
This is your concept, your basic idea.
Now, here is where you have to start thinking and for such a simple statement there’s a lot to work with there. Some things to consider are:
- What made him become a pilot?
- Why does he have this casual attitude towards women?
- Has he ever tried to have a serious relationship? And if so, why didn’t it work?
- Is he so jaded from women falling all over him that he could never take any of them seriously?
- How did his young life with his family shape this attitude?
- Who were his role models growing up?
The same method is applied to physical appearance, friends and family, personality traits and flaws. The bottom line is there is a reason for everything.
The Big Conflict
The next step is figuring out what the conflict is. The hero doesn’t necessarily have to know what this goal is. Cole didn’t. His Big Conflict came right out of left field and smacked him hard over the head.
Some good questions to ask yourself at this stage are:
- What does your character have to overcome?
- Who or what stands in his way?
- What are the stakes?
- What is his weakness, his kryptonite?
- What is his greatest strength or saving grace?
By working through these questions you’ll get a clear picture of how your character may react in any given situation.
Baddies Need Love Too
When it comes to creating your antagonist, your bad guy, as much thought and attention has to be put into it as you put into your hero. The steps are the same. Good baddies have very real reasons for being who and what they are. In their mind what they do is justified. As warped as their point of view may be to the rest of the world, to them, it’s the way things are.
Again, building a believable baddie is all about getting the reader to CARE. Whether they care to hate him or pity him, they still care. An emotional chord has been struck and there’s a bond.
In Loyalties we have Ramon. He’s a real slimy bastard, cold, calculating, reckless, and extremely passionate. The chip he carries on his shoulder effects everything he does. He reacts on pure emotion, even if that emotion happens to be a viscous streak of envy.
At first the reader may not see what drives him, but as the story unfolds all it took was one well placed line that defined his actions. But it wasn’t that anything was left out beforehand. Oh no, not by a longshot. All the clues to his personality were carefully laid out and left a breadcrumb trail that made the readers care bit by bit. The final scene that exposed Ramon for what he was came like a thunderbolt out of the blue for one massively glorious “Ah ha!” moment.
The Supporting Cast
Heroes don’t complete their tasks alone. They have friends, family, mentors and various strangers who help them along their journey. While you don’t have to detail out every character in the book to the extent of your hero, you do have to carefully choose a few to lend some details to.
If your hero has a best friend, you want to know the dynamics of that relationship. How did they meet? How long have they known each other? Parents, siblings and other relatives pertinent to the story may need some quick character sketches that you’ll keep on hand.
The same goes for your villain’s lackeys and henchmen.
Sometimes you don’t realize you need someone until you’re into the story itself. When that happens, stop yourself and get to know this new character first. Oh, I have to admit that I’ve pantsed a few characters in my day. It wasn’t while writing a novel, though. Cole was one such character. He started out with a bit part as an experiment and the more I worked with him, he started taking on a life of his own.
But when you’re writing a novel, you don’t have the luxury of long-term exploration as you would on a role playing creative writing board. You need a few little “get to know you” sessions first. Trying to write a character on the fly is going to cause you all kinds of headaches during the rewrite stage when you realize you’ve written in a lot of inconsistencies.
Your Mission This Week
Using the Character Creation worksheet (click to download), create one hero. You could use a character you’ve created before, but I’ll tell you, it’s really hard to let go of old notions. Several of the characters in Loyalties are ones I’ve been writing for years. When it came time to use them in this series I had to toss out a lot of the previous information I had built for them. At the core, the characters themselves were ones I’d gotten to know and love and it was really difficult to let go of some aspects of their being.
But…in a way it was liberating. Each one was still the same person only solidified and transformed into something far greater than before.
Once you’ve created your character we’d love for you to come back next week and share your discoveries here for some discussion. How did the process work for you? Did you find it liberating or was it frustratingly restricting? What kind of ideas sparked your imagination as you worked? Were you able to begin to see a direction for your novel? Got more questions? Ask us! That’s what we’re here for. The worksheet is totally interactive and if you’d like to fill it out and send it to us to use as a case study, please do. We’ll pick one at random to use in next week’s post.
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