Are you planning to take part in National Novel-Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)? Briefly, it’s a worldwide online event where thousands of writers buckle down and steam through a novel. The nominal goal is 50,000 words in November – which might be a whole novel or a good chunk of one. Whichever, it’s a great way to sprint into a first draft because you’ve got a support team of other writers cheering you on, sharing their goals and buddying up to drag you over the finish line. If you’re a first-timer, NaNoWriMo is a great way to have a go and surprise yourself. And many seasoned writers use it as a way to get their first drafts motoring.
November? I’ll wait until then
No, start now. One of the keys to success is preparation. Although you’re not allowed to start the draft until NaNoWriMo month, you can plan beforehand. Research, plot notes and story summaries are all permitted – and serious contenders will be limbering up right now.
Or perhaps planning is the last thing you want to do. Maybe you want to sit down on day 1, summon the muse and channel the voices. Let the novel gush into your head and onto the keys.
Whichever way you work, there’s one kind of planning that will help you steer a steady course – AND write with your gut instincts.
Plan your characters
Indeed, if I had to choose whether to outline plot or characters in detail, I’d spend the time on creating the characters.
Once I know who my fictional people are, they start acting, talking and steering the show – merely by being themselves. This streamlines the writing process enormously, helps you write in a natural flow. It’s especially useful for project like NaNoWriMo, where you want to get your wordcount done – but still have fun.
Here’s what you need.
Work out their central problem The story will come from this. What do they want to achieve or prevent? What makes this problem desperate and ultimately unavoidable? How much of it comes from their personality or life situation? Is it something they have been suppressing or muddling along with? Perhaps they don’t admit to it, because that would open a box they don’t want to look in. The problem might be obviously significant, such as losing a job or discovering a murder. Or it might be apparently trivial – such as buying a puppy that turns nasty or forces the character to face up to responsibility. Whichever it is – whether solving a murder or wrangling with puppy ownership – it will be a big deal for them; and thus will be a landmark episode in their life.
How this generates the plot Devise two scenes. Your climax – the horrible moment near the end where the character confronts the thing they want to avoid. And a scene you can put in early that shows the reader they dread this.
The climax confrontation might be much deeper than the early scene suggests and therefore address a more fundamental problem. These fundamental problems come from a character’s deep needs. So, if your MC is trying to solve a murder, they might ultimately discover that the murderer was their own husband. This might prove that she never really knew him – something she’d always been denying or laughing off. You can still have the plot need – to catch a killer. But the deeper arc that makes it such a landmark will have come from the character’s innermost life.
If you want, you can stop planning there. But if you prefer to build a skeleton story, work out the steps between those points. Especially, concentrate on the ways the characters try to avoid or evade this worst-case scenario. Make those escapades create complications and ensnare them further, taking them down twisted alleyways, so that it seems the universe is conspiring, in sidelong ways, to throw them to that final confrontation.
Add other character details Once you have this core, fill in other details. Early life, job history, interests, relationship status. These will almost write themselves because you’ll have an instinct for what fits.
Add complicating factors These might be a wish to protect someone, a job that drains their energy or makes life difficult. If you’re writing historical fiction, look at constraints from social position or the characters’ way of life.
Respite You might also want to give your main characters some respite – a hobby they retreat to, a way they regroup to feel more like themselves and demonstrate a lighter side. Or maybe they need a dark release, an obliterating escape – an addiction, an illicit love affair, a dangerous sport.
Antagonist or antagonists
Their central problem. For the protagonist we asked ‘what’s wrong’ and ‘who are they’. For the antagonist we begin with ‘why’.
Why do they cause trouble? Is it their personality, a need to cause mischief or take revenge? Are they the protagonist’s opponents in a competition? Do they have a duty to uphold a law of the land or some other obligation that pits them against the protagonist?
Here’s another why: why are they a serious threat rather than something the protagonist can shrug off?
If the antagonist is an entity (such as society or an organisation), considering creating a character who embodies its role. Or perhaps this could be several characters. Faceless organisations are not as interesting to read about as characters who act for them. And characters are more interesting to write about because of their humanity. They will act unpredictably – get tired, bad tempered, unreasonable. They will perhaps feel the voice of conscience, or be in conflict themselves. They might make us laugh.
How this generates the story. Once you know these essentials, you will find it easier to decide how they’ll intrude on and threaten the protagonist.
Lastly, if you need to, develop some background details as for your main characters.
You need a few significant others – your supporting and secondary characters. Add the people who will regularly interact with your protagonist and antagonist (although they don’t necessarily have to belong to both).
You might want to start with just a handful – perhaps a colleague, romantic partner, close friend, henchman – and add others as new roles become necessary. Or you might sketch out a complete network of people who your leads will regularly see.
Focus on relationships As these characters are secondary, focus on their relationships with the principals. Are they willing participants, wise observers, moral support, meddling do-gooders? Do they have needs of their own that could help or hinder the main characters?
Some salt and sugar in everyone
Protagonists will be tedious if they’re thoroughly good. Antagonists will be pantomimish (and wearisome) if thoroughly evil. Give each of your nice people a dash of vinegar, and each antagonist something good (even if it’s only the conviction that they’re right).
Relationships – again
Now you have a rough cast list, take another look at how they feel about each other. If you do this, you’ll never be at a loss when you wriggle inside a scene with them. You’ll know how to make them distinct in their dialogue because you’ll understand their hidden agendas and individual voices. If one of them needs a favour from the other, you know how easy (or otherwise) it will be to get it. If one of them tells the other off, you know whether they gloated about it or found it extremely uncomfortable; whether it drew them closer or drove them apart.
If you know your characters, you’ll want to tell their stories.
There’s a lot more advice on developing characters – and detailed questionnaires to help you create distinctive people – in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel.
If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, including my own (much drafted) third novel, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.