Creating Characters from Scratch

This year I'm participating in NaNoWriMo for the first time. For those of you not familiar with the acronym, it stands for National Novel Writing Month and it's organized by the Office of Letters and Light. Participants begin writing on November 1st, and the goal is to write a 50,000-word  novel by midnight on November 30th.

As I said, this is my first year participating, but I've already been floored by the great regional groups they have set up, the amazing resources available in their forums and was lucky enough to attend a seminar on "Characters" this past Saturday.

Which is what I wanted to talk about today: Characters.

It can be argued that every plot has been done and every setting been used—but we'll never run out of new and interesting characters. Characters are what set a book apart.

That makes it incredibly important to develop strong, memorable characters who your readers can relate to—and one of the best, if not the only, way to create a strong character is to give them a spine (something that drives him or her throughout your book).

Everything the character does—for better or worse—should by explainable by that one thing. It's this central motivation that lets you make your character do something terrible, without alienating the reader... because your reader can understand why they're acting that way.

But how do you make sure you've given your characters a good spine?

How to Build a Character from Scratch

Everyone has their own methods for getting to know their characters, but at the workshop this past weekend we mind-mapped characters, starting with what we knew we needed our character to be (in one case a teenage magic user, in another a lawyer with a particular physical quirk) and then began building the character from that key trait.

We asked questions like:

  • How did they acquire those traits?
  • How do they feel about those traits?
  • How do these things make other characters feel about them?
  • What other traits is the character likely to have as a result?

We did this several times to prove that you could build a character starting with any one characteristic (Want to see exactly how we did it? Click here for the full video from the seminar). This worked for both our protagonists and our antagonists. This let us get to know the characters quickly, before writing.

In each case the character's spine emerged as we got to know the characters better.

So, for the book I'm working on, I'd take what I know about my lead character (namely, that he's used to having money but is on the verge of going bankrupt) and map from there. Why is he about to go bankrupt? How did he get his money in the first place? Why is having that money important to him? Etc. As I develop the answers to these questions, I come ever closer to finding the one thing that drives him. Even though some of the other details may change once I start writing, the one thing that shouldn't change (unless, of course, you need to change the character as a whole) is his or her spine.

What Drives Your Characters?

Just as your spine is a key part of your physiological make up—a key part, without which you'd fall apart—your character's spine should be the core essence of who he or she is, boiled down into just a few sentences. So Andrew Stanton of Pixar shared that in Toy Story Woody's spine is that he always wants to do right for his boy. You can easily see how this sometimes makes Woody do things that aren't very nice or aren't particularly heroic, but are still in keeping with his character because they are driven by that key character trait.

In the Celtic Legacy series (which I just finished editing for Shannon Mayer), her main character's goal is to save her sister—even when monsters invade the Earth. She's spent her whole life working toward that goal and nothing is going to stop her. Just as Woody does some dirty things, the main character here disowns her own mother in keeping with her central goal.

Growing (Your Characters) A Spine

Having a character with a strong spine is that it makes writing so. much. easier. Suddenly, you can predict exactly what your character would do in almost any situation.

To find your character's spine, think about what things are most important to him or her. Is there a person who they hold in highest regard? Is there some thing that's exceptionally important? Maybe it's a self vision of themselves—a way they want others to view them? When you've figured this out, think about how it will play in the story.

If your character is mostly focused on their self-image, they probably won't stop to help someone else out—unless others are watching. Maybe your character's spine is saving her children from an abusive father; even though she's normally a very submissive person, her inner grizzly comes out to save her kids and it gives her the courage to leave him.

More Examples From the TV Show Bones

One popular TV show that does a great job of this is Bones. You can easily identify each character's singular goal. Temperance's is a pursuit for knowledge, for understanding. Angela's is to find the beauty and the good in things, which leads her to focus on living "in the moment." Booth's is to do what's right—he's driven by his moral code. Hodgins wants to be like everyone else (despite the gobs of money he's inherited) and just "fit in." He likes to goof with the guys and keeps his family money a secret.

So, now comes the time for the big question—what is your character's driving force? What gives them their spine? And have you done NaNaWriMo? If so, any advice for a first timer like me?

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My name is Melissa Breau & I’m a Raleigh-based tea-drinker and dog aficionado. If you’re local, let me know—I’d love to grab a drink.

By day, I’m a keyboard junkie, and (shameless plug) craft killer marketing content for small business owners far and wide.

By night (and sometimes on the weekend) I help out at several nonprofits, teach my dog new tricks, and try to spend as much time outside in the sunshine as I can.

Before joining the world of marketing I spent several years at various publishing companies in NYC, including both magazine publishers and book publishers. I also earned my Masters in Publishing from Pace University.

Want to chat? Find me on twitter or drop me a line via my website.

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