#nanoprep: Creating characters

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).

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!

Creating is self-care

Insecure Writers Support Group BadgeSometimes life kicks you in the butt. Then it kicks you when you’re down. Then it curb-stomps you into a bloody pulp and leaves you twitching in the gutter.

My mother passed away Saturday morning. The woman who birthed me, loved me, taught me, corrected me, protected me, nurtured me, encouraged me. That woman is gone.

Her passing was not sudden. It was not unexpected. Dementia had stolen most of who she was, so her death wasn’t even a tragedy. It was a mercy.

But it hurts like hell.

That sucks, you say, but first Wednesday is supposed to be the day we IWSG types write words of encouragement to our fellow writers, and getting curb-stomped by life doesn’t sound very encouraging. Fair point. Stick with me. The encouragement is coming.

One of the first things that usually gets cast aside in dark times is self-care. Friday I forgot to eat. Yes, really. Me, the unrepentant glutton, forgot to eat for about 8 hours, till my stomach was digesting itself, and I was too lightheaded to think. And even then, I didn’t really want to eat.

Another thing that gets cast aside is creating. We’re too tired, too hurting, too demoralized to do anything but suck in the next ragged breath. The distance between the metaphorical gutter where we lie, broken and bleeding, and the metaphorical curb is just too damn far. That curb might as well be El Capitan. No way we’re getting up there.

And when we finally drag our broken selves up that impossible height to stand again, we can only find the strength to put one foot in front of the other, to take a few shambling steps, to do the things we absolutely have to do. And writing, creating, making art is not something we have to do.  So we don’t.

And sometimes we keep don’t-ing for days, weeks, months, even years. We sink deeper into the abyss, or we take up new activities, and we leave our art behind. Someday, we say. Someday, when life gets easier. Someday, when things settle down.

But things don’t settle down, do they? Oh, no, they don’t. Stuff happens, some good, some bad, some breathtakingly awful in this cosmic game of Whack-a-Mole. But things never settle down.

So here’s what I have learned over the last decade of watching my mother fade away, of caring for ill family members, of losing one of the best friends I ever had–in other words, of getting kicked around about as much as any other middle-aged, middle-class American. No pity party here.

What I’ve learned is that creating is self-care.

Creating is a way to nurture a broken soul, to take tiny daily steps up out of that gutter.

Oh, look, you say. Here’s another person telling me to suck it up, Buttercup. To pull myself up by my bootstraps and get back to work. Work is good for you. Work builds character. Blah blah self-helpity blah.


What I’m saying is that creating gives me hope. Hope that I’ll get through this. Hope that I can still do what I love. Hope that I can get my life back after the curb-stomping. That there’s something on the other side of this pain besides more pain.

Everyone copes differently. Everyone grieves differently. And that’s OK. What works for me may not work for you. But for me, knowing I can still make a tiny bit of progress toward my dream, can still find the will to create, nourishes me through the dark times. It doesn’t have to be much. Ten minutes a day. 100 words. Five minutes. One sentence. One crappy metaphor about being curb-stomped by life. Something.

And so, fellow writer, my words of encouragement to you on this first Wednesday in October are these: Create. Even when life sucks. Even when it all feels pointless and hopeless. Even when getting out of bed seems like an act of heroism. And may each act of creation, no matter how small, be a tiny bandage, a dab of healing salve on your broken, bleeding soul. May each act of creation bring you hope.

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