I’m up to my eyeballs in #nanoprep, otherwise known as preparing for NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo is a worldwide phenomenon in which hundreds of thousands of people commit to writing 50,000 words in November. Much caffeine is consumed, much angst ensues, and many fingers ache from pounding on many keyboards. I’ve done NaNo a few times and “won” (wrote 50K words) the first time, in 2014. This is the first time since then that I’ve started a brand-new novel for NaNo.
I have an outline done, and now I’m working on character sketches. One of the lessons I learned from writing my first novel is that I could avoid some rewriting and a lot of inconsistencies if I went deeper into my characters before I started writing. In this post, I’ll share with you a few of the most helpful tools I’ve found for creating detailed character sketches and, more importantly, figuring out what makes your character tick and how your character will behave in a variety of situations.
Book recommendation for creating characters
I started with a book I found in my library: The Writer’s Digest Sourcebook for Building Believable Characters by Marc McCutcheon (Writers Digest, 1996). This book is mostly a character thesaurus containing lists of traits people can have, divided into the following sections: Face and Body; Personality/Identity; Facial Expressions, Body and Vocal Language; Dress; Dialects and Foreign Speech; Given Names and Surnames from Around the World; and Character Homes. It also includes a detailed and super-useful Character Questionnaire, which I have adapted for creating my character sketches. I’m not going to reproduce it here (copyright is a thing to be respected), but it includes details about the character’s personality, style of dress, occupational history, physical characteristics, family background, ethnicity, goals and needs, quirks, health, hobbies, and a whole lot more.
I just finished using it, with a few adaptations, to flesh out my main character. Thinking through all those aspects of my character gave me much deeper insights into who she is and even gave me some ideas for additional scenes.
Blog posts on character traits
I also found some excellent blog posts to help me fill out my character sketch. I have a hard time creating good action beats for my characters, ones that actually characterize rather than just make the character fidget awkwardly during emotional moments (hmm,that’s what I do during emotional moments. Like author, like character, I guess).
- Reedsy’s post, Defining Your Characters: 150+ Character Mannerisms, was a great source of concrete ideas that are not boring or clichéd.
- Another Reedsy post, 150+ Useful Character Quirks (Plus a Few Clichés to Avoid), gives great pointers on how to use quirks to enrich character and advance the story—and provides a wonderful list of quirks to assign to your hapless characters.
- Now Novel’s Character Mannerisms: Describing Character Quirks and Tics, gives examples of how to use character mannerisms to portray characters more deeply and vividly.
Another tip for creating characters–Google it!
As I filled out my character sketch, I had to answer questions like, What does my character wear? And What’s her hairstyle? I have a bad habit of failing to dress my characters or giving them hairstyles (perhaps I should write stories in which everyone is naked and bald), but I want to do better this time. The trouble is, I know bupkis about fashion or hair (I mean, I wear clothes and have hair, but if you know me IRL, you’ll understand). So I figured out enough about my character’s psychology to know that she needs a simple, businesslike hairstyle and wears dressy casual clothes when she isn’t at work. So I Googled “short professional hairstyles for women” (or something like that) and “dressy casual clothes for women” (or something like that) and found some articles and pictures to help me out. Now my MC will look like Vanessa Hudgins and need to take a second job to afford her wardrobe.
I hope that the extra effort I’m putting into creating characters will help me avoid many instances of furrowed brows, tapping fingers, raised eyebrows, and other boring, overused action beats. We’ll see in a few days (*gasp*), when I stop planning and start writing.
Are you participating in NaNo this year? If so, and you’d like a NaNo buddy, feel free to add me (NaNo ID: janetcrum – yeah, I know, how original). Have any favorite tips and tricks for creating characters? Or favorite character mannerisms? Share ‘em in the comments!