Ready, Set, NaNo

November is peak season for writers; when NaNoWriMo rolls around we’re all ready to power through novels that we’ve pushed back and back and back all year long. Every year the story is the same for thousands of people:

You start well, you beat your targets for the first few days, and then… something goes wrong. Somewhere down the line you lose motivation or you meet a blockage that you just can’t work around.

You fall further and further behind, and sure maybe you write until the last day, but you never meet the target. You never finish it.

 

Or maybe you just give up altogether.

 

I’d love to be your hero (baby) and take away the pain…

 

But I can’t… All I can do is help you to prepare for NaNoWriMo so that you can up your chances of success. Here are some things to keep in mind as we go on:

1) It’s a marathon, not a sprint;

Yes there are some truly terrifying individuals who can crank out ten thousand words (or more) in the first day, but I’d bet you that many of them burn out somewhere in the second week.

Nano is a test of endurance, planning, and determination. In essence it’s a microcosm for the experience of a writing career – it teaches you skill you should apply to every day life if you want to take this on full time.

2) Failure is an option, but it doesn’t define you;

You can do it all right and still not finish. You can finish and dislike the product. Hell, you can finish and like your book and still not get published; this is not a reflection on your potential, but on THIS project and your CURRENT skill.

Learn how to say “I’m not ready YET”.

3) This is not an excuse to neglect your body and life

I’ll say it again, NaNoWriMo is an intense and limited example of what it means to take on a writing career; you should be continuing your life as usual, but finding time to write. This may mean sacrificing small pleasures such as an extra hour in bed or gaming time – what it DOESN’T mean is not washing, sleeping, eating, or socialising and skipping school or work.

If you take the time to learn how to juggle you will build good habits that will increase your productivity in the long run. This is a worthy goal, even if you fail the word count goal first time round.

 

Preparing For NaNoWriMo

Your preparation doesn’t need to begin now, but I would recommend that you start it soon. There are three steps to preparing for Nano, and depending on what book you want to write you may already have completed the first two.

1) Idea and Plot Development:

If you want to make your life as easy as possible during Nano it’s advisable to develop your idea and basic plot before you start to write; this will minimise the likelihood of severe writers block.

Idea development is a topic I have discussed before in detail, so if you’re unsure about it check out the link provided. If you’re having trouble getting an idea at all, however, checkout some prompts and methods. 

Once you have your idea it’s time to make a basic plot and some characters. This booklet might be of use to you*. When you have a an idea, plot, and main character(s) you’ll find you can get off to a flying start.

 

2) Research and Pre-Writing

Once you have the basic outline of a story and your characters, you need to flesh out their world and experiences. This is the time to gather knowledge and understanding of any topics on which you’re unversed.

Worldbuilding might be on the agenda; if you find it hard to flesh out the tricky details consider these world-building questions to help you get the gears turning. If you’re working with in the ‘real’ world, but in a historic setting you should brush up on your historical research skills to make the most of what you read. Most of all remember that when you research for fiction you are focussing on the major events of the time, and the minutia of life for your characters.

i.e. in a story surrounding a weavers daughter there is very little reason why the reader needs to know about the intricacies of courtly life, even in the country in which the book is set, unless she must become immersed in them herself!

Pre-writing, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, is the process of writing what I would call the “scaffolding” which will prop up your first draft. Think family trees, histories of towns and conflicts, personal histories, relationship development plans, and political information for your characters and your world. Your reader will probably never see any of this, but it will help you immensely (trust me!).

 

3) Real World Preparations

Ultimately this is the part that will make or break your attempt; you need to make time in your life for NaNoWriMo.

This can be done in a number of ways:

  1. Tell your friends and family you will be participating so that they can give you space and support.
  2. Create a workspace for yourself somewhere quiet and relatively undisturbed.
  3. Figure out the best time for you to write e.g. mornings, evenings etc.
  4. Begin building habits, e.g. if mornings are your time begin the process of gradually waking up earlier than usual. Set an alarm half and hour earlier than usual for one week, for example, and then move it back another half hour after you are used to this.
  5. Set a routine; start sitting down to write, plan, or pre-write once or twice a week. Try to have a set time, and ensure that people know to leave you be (unless it’s an emergency) in that hour or two. Setting this habit early will help greatly when November bares its teeth.

 

Once you’ve done all of this you’ll be ready to give NaNoWriMo hell!

 

 

 

 

 

*This booklet is entirely free, but if you want to enable me to keep updating it (as well as producing more articles and resources) you could consider supporting me through Kofi.

 

 

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Beating Burnout – A Writers Guide

Burnout isn’t pretty, it isn’t fun, and it really isn’t necessary. There are ways to avoid becoming burned out, but on the assumption that those have failed let’s talk about how to get over it.

In fact, let’s talk about a real life case-study; me.

 

As I write this, I’m sitting in my pyjamas with a cup of Pukka detox tea, which by the way is amazing (sorry shameless plug, but it smells like heaven), and I am very slowly easing back into a normal working schedule.

Two weeks ago I burned out completely, and I’ve only just recovered; that’s right, burnout takes a long time to recover from. Why? Well, because it’s a build up of stress and exhaustion caused by a long period of neglect and poor self-care.

Two weeks ago, when I realised I was entirely burnt-out I took a picture which I had intended to share with you, but here’s the truth; my vanity wouldn’t let me keep it. It was just that bad; despite being freshly showered, cleansed, moisturised and blow dried I looked haggard. My face was grey, I was bloated, I had a major break out, my hair was lifeless and somehow still greasy looking, and I had bags the size of China under my eyes.

I looked ill, and that’s because I actually was. In fact, I looked like this;

But with terrible, terrible skin (and an extra twenty pounds… ok thirty, damn Kayleigh Cuoco for being perfect).

Burnout might not be a medical term, but it is actually a mild form of what might be called Fatigue, or medical exhaustion. In essence, when you burnout it’s because you have taken your mind and body for granted; when a heavy workload and depression combine the resulting burnout can be crippling, as I just experienced.

 

That night I finished all the work I could handle, because when you’re freelance you have to work even when exhausted, I took a hot shower, I exfoliated, I cleansed, I shaved, I conditioned, and cleaned every inch of myself. I brushed my teeth with charcoal to remove stains and then I brushed them with enamel repair toothpaste. Then I drank a cup of hot water, took multivitamins and I did the hardest thing in the world for the average freelance writer; I cleared my schedule for the next day.

In layman’s terms? I booked myself a day off.

I slept for fourteen hours straight and when I woke up… well, I still looked and felt like shit because burnout doesn’t go away over night. You have to work at getting rid of it.

 

What Causes Burnout

If you’ve reached that breaking point I can give you hope, but first I need to give you a wake-up call; burnout is caused by excessive mental or physical stress, poor diet, poor hydration, and sleep deprivation. Don’t get me wrong, eating well and drinking water wont save you if you work 16 hours a day and never sleep, but a healthy lifestyle can help you fend off burnout and fatigue for longer, and will probably make the experience more bearable.

The health implications, however, last longer than the symptoms and negative fallout:

Sleep Debt, or sleep deficit, is the cumulative result of restricted sleep, or sleep deprivation, over longer periods of time. Now, we all know that regular sleep loss, or poor sleep, puts you at risk of heart disease, obesity, and other health problems, but sleep debt is particularly pernicious; you will be more prone to depression, fits of rage, comfort eating, a lower libido, and you could be at increased risk of diabetes if it happens regularly. Furthermore, sleep debt doesn’t go away just because you’ve slept in for one or two days – it is cumulative and is suspected to shorten your life.

Poor Diet and Dehydration rarely cause burnout on their own, but when they combine with poor sleeping patterns they make it devastating. Of course, the real concern here is the damage you (and I) will do to your body because of these bad habits….

Ok, lecture over,

 

Beating Burnout

Deep breaths – don’t worry; I know you feel shit right now, but the good news is that you’ll start to feel better pretty quickly.

The key is to treat burnout much like you would treat the Flu – rest, eat well, stay hydrated, and seek appropriate medical advice if you need to. Now, in all honesty, you shouldn’t need a doctor for burnout, unless you’ve really went hell for leather.

Instead you should be writing yourself a short shopping list; now this method works for me, but you don’t have to follow it to the letter. Just remember that the key here is to show your body a bit of extra love to make up for the damage you’ve caused.

Finally, nothing on this list is needlessly expensive; there are no status items here – this is about care not cost.

You Will Need:

  • Water – as a Scottish citizen I’m lucky; our tap water is excellent, but for others bottled water may be needed. Don’t freak out and get super expensive “sports” waters or “smart” waters; amazon pantry sells 12x 500ml bottles of Highland Spring for £2.80 and 6x 1.5l bottles of Buxton for £2.50. If you’re tap waters no good just opt for something cheap and cheerful.
  • Multivitamins – once again, don’t go overboard and stress yourself by buying out-with your budget. These soluble Vitamin C tablets and these multi vitamins work as well as any others.
  • Good Food – cut out junk food as much as possible. Raw fruit is your friend here, and things like apples and bananas are not overly expensive. More important, however, is ensuring you eat lots of green vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, and runner beans. Also look for protein and mineral sources such as spinach and chicken. Vegans and vegetarians should focus on beans, pulses, and nuts in order to get the right mix of nutrients (but then you already knew that).
  • Time – in the end there is no substitute for time. It took you time to burn out, and it will take time to recover. For at least the next week go to bed early and avoid setting alarm whenever you can; even if you cant sleep quiet meditation in a dark room will ease stress and tension, and hopefully help you to sleep later on. Nap during the day if you need to at first, but don’t get into a habit of it if it disrupts your sleeping routine overall.

 

Optional but helpful

  • Coconut water – the wonders of coconut water are crowed by every beauty blogger and nutritionist alive, and for good reason. I won’t bore you with the stats, therefore, as you probably already know them (if not, here they are). What I will say is that when I do burn out I drink about 500mls of coconut water just before bed for the first week while recovering, and I have personally noticed that it speeds my return to full functionality by a few days. Its not as cheap as bottled water, but you can get a pack of 20 OKF Pure Coconut Water for £20 online. However, if you live near a Lidl, Aldi, or Home Bargains/ B&M you can probably get 3 or 4 6 packs for much less.
  • Facemasks and Skincare – once again this is a personal ritual – I break out when I burn out, and I find that facemasks make me feel good as well as benefitting my skin and returning balance. I use one of these once every week anyway, and up their usage to twice a week if I’ve let myself burn out.
  • Cocoa Butter – if your skin has become really quite dry and started to become tight, painful, and/or cracked on your feet, hands, and elbows etc you could consider Palmers Cocoa Butter which is a miracle and every day staple anyway (in my opinion). Once again, though, this is just what I do to make myself feel better and speed the repair of damage that I notice after a burnout.

 

The most important thing is that you try to carry forward these actions and form good habits to reduce the risk of future burnouts. In all honesty, if you’re a student, or you work for yourself, it’s going to be impossible to never burn out ever again, but you can make it less common, less likely, and less severe if you just take care of yourself!

 

Remember, writers need love too! Show yourself some love.

Three Simple Ways To Level Up Your Prose

Once you’ve written a short story or novel, it’s tempting to start sending it out right away. Of course, writers with sense know that you need to edit and polish any work before you consider sending it away.

Once you have edited, dealt with any structural issue or plot holes, and otherwise refined the story, there’s still the matter of technique, or style as Strunk and White would call it.

It takes a lifetime to really master writing technique, if anyone can actually do it, but there are a few simple changes you can make to instantly level up your prose!

1) “Omit Needless Words”

Brevity and clarity are things every writer should aspire to. Words are precious; say what you need to as efficiently as possible by never repeating yourself.

Don’t get me wrong, you don’t need to make all sentences short. Just make sure that every word progresses the story. Here are some examples of words and phrases that are “needless”:

With regard to

In the event that

In a hasty manner

The reason why is

These can be replaced, in order, by:

Regarding

If

Hastily

Because

There will be times when you want to affect an archaic and formal writing style; when this is the case, you could consider reversing this process for a stiffer, less flowing style.

2) Beware The Plague Of Adverbs

Stephen King stated that adverbs are much like Dandelion; if you have just one or two in your garden they can look pretty, but when you let them run amuck they lose their charm.

This is the best explanation I’ve seen as to why you should avoid using adverbs. Notice I say avoid, not stop.

One or two well placed adjectives can add suspense, feeling, and flair to the right moments of your story. Too many shows a lack of confidence; you must be confident that the reader can understand your intent without them. If you’re not, something is wrong.

Adverbs tend to be words that end in -ly, e.g. firmly, happily, angrily, hauntingly. They modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs, and they are superfluous. If your sentence can’t stand without an adverb it’s a bad sentence. Start by removing them all, read through your piece, and add them in again if you feel it’s necessary.

When you do use adverbs, however, make sure you use appropriate and efficient ones. For example, tiredly is a trash-fire of a word that adds nothing to the world which wearily doesn’t do better. Think before using an adverb.

3) Don’t Qualify

Remove qualifying words and statements from your writing – be bold!

Qualifiers, much like adverbs, modify meaning. In this case the meaning of a full statement or sentence. They don’t add new meaning, however, but dilute the original statement.

Consider,

Tyrion Lannister could have been said to be the best man in his family. 

Not only is that a sentence full of needless words, it’s full of qualifiers. “could have been said to be” here means, ‘some people thought that, others didn’t, and I’m not sharing my opinion.

Consider instead:

Tyrion Lannister was the best man in his family.

Or

Tyrion Lannister was the worst of them. 

Both of these sentences are more effective than the first because they are bold, they are clear, and they are no longer than they need to be.

If you want to stand out, keep your prose lean and professional; you’ll notice a difference in no time.

If you want a more in-depth guide to an efficient writing style consider Strunk and Whites The Elements of Style. This is a seminal text and should be on every writers bedside table!

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The Three Cardinal Sins Of Writing

There are some mistakes that simply cannot be rectified no matter how skilled your editor is.

Thankfully such catastrophic writing mistakes are few, but beginner beware; should you commit one of these cardinal plotting sins your only option will be to scrap the piece and go back to the drawing board!

 

1) A Concept That Can’t Win

Some ideas are just bad.

I mean it, step away from that self-important monologue from the point of view or Johnny Rotten’s guitar. Please.

If your concept is bland, implausible, or just plain bad there is very little you can do to salvage any work that springs from it. While it’s true that a real genius, like Neil Gaiman for example, could perhaps do something with even the worst idea… saying that is, well, kind of like saying you think you’re up there. You might be, who knows? But if you have doubts about the concept just take the time to evaluate, develop, or, if needs be, abandon it rather than taking that long and difficult path.

What You Can Do

If the concept is terrible people will tell you – listen to them.

If there’s something in it that you really want to keep, the best thing you can do is strip it back to the bare bones and brainstorm a new form with someone whose judgement you really trust.

Once you have a new, ish, concept to work with try again (or just put the poor thing out of its misery).

 

2) All Premise, No Plot

You have a great concept, you’re excited by the idea, and yet your book is being rejected, with no commentary, left, right, and centre. Why?

Well, it could be that your premise has no plot backing it up. You’ll be able to tell that this is the case with a simple test; outline the major plot points on paper. If there’s less than five you’re in trouble.

A premise is what makes your intriguing, the plot is what makes it go. If you have no plot then nothing happens, no conflicts are resolved, and your characters never grow.

i.e. no plot = no story = no book = no chance.

What You Can Do

Give it a plot; if you can’t make a plot its because the story you wish to tell isn’t strong enough, or it doesn’t work with your premise.

Keep the basic premise and lose the rest; brainstorm with that seed and start again.

 

3) USP? What USP??

You’ve written a great spy-thriller with a cool premise and an action filled plot, but agents and publishers are still passing… why?

Well, if your spy John Bland is fighting Dr Death in a subterranean lair it might be the fact that you’ve written a knock-off with no USP (that is Unique Selling Point) to distinguish it from its “inspiration” source.

If there’s nothing unique about your novel agents, publishers, and consumers have no reason to buy it; you need to give them something with a hint of freshness.

What You Can Do

Be honest with yourself about the “borrowed” elements of your story and take steps to remove or alter them.

100 World-Building Questions

The Basics

  1. How many continents does your world have?
  2. How many countries?
  3. How many languages are spoken?
  4. Which are the main languages?
  5. Which countries hold the most power?
  6. Are there any Empires?
  7. What systems of Government are in use?
  8. Which time period is most reflective of your worlds current state (e.g. Victorian, Medieval, Futuristic)?
  9. Do any elements of another time period enter your world (e.g. a medieval-esque world with Victorian level technology)?
  10. Do some countries in your world have more in common with one time period than another?
  11. Is international trade the norm?
  12. If so, is it formally arranged or undertaken by single businesses and traders?
  13. Is there a recognised tax system?
  14. How do people communicate over large distances?
  15. Can people communicate over large distances?
  16. Are there class systems in place?
  17. How many different races (e.g. human, alien species, fantasy species) are there in your world?
  18. How many ethnicities are there?
  19. Is Religion a big factor in your world?
  20. How many religions are there?
  21. Is there a dominant religion?
  22. Are any of your countries at war?
  23. Which of your countries have warred with each other in the past?
  24. Which countries are allied with each other?
  25. Do any of your countries have systems of slavery or indentured servitude in place?

 

Magic and Technology

  1. Do any of your cultures believe in/ practice magic?
  2. Is it real/ does it work?
  3. If not – what practices do they have that are linked to their beliefs and why do they continue with them?
  4. If so, what kinds of magic are there?
  5. Can everyone practice one or all kinds of magic?
  6. What are the limitations (e.g. magic use saps life force, requires items, etc)?
  7. Is there anything that magic cannot achieve?
  8. Is magic formally taught, learned through apprenticeship, or a natural gift?
  9. What is the view of the populous with regard to magic?
  10. Are magic users considered superior, inferior, or equal to non-magic users?
  11. Who are the great magic users of your world?
  12. Are there any legal restrictions on magic?
  13. How does magic make up for the weaknesses in your worlds technology?
  14. Do magic and technology meet in any way?
  15. How does technology make up for the limitations of magic?
  16. Do all countries have access to the same technology?
  17. Is there any one way in which technology is primarily used (e.g. agriculture, military etc)?
  18. Is technology readily accessible to all classes?
  19. Is technology used on a household or industrial scale?
  20. Is technology used for non-essential pursuits, e.g. entertainment, yet?
  21. Who are the great inventors of your world?
  22. What are the limitations of technology in your world?
  23. Is there any technology which can suppress, dispel, or dampen magic?
  24. How is technological growth and development fuelled?
  25. Are there any legal restrictions on technologies?

 

Flora, Fauna, and Environment

  1. Does your world have all the “usual” hemispheres (is it earth or earth-like)?
  2. Which environment/habitat makes up the largest part of your world (sea, forest/jungle, desert, or mountains)?
  3. Is your world mostly temperate?
  4. How many deserts/wastelands are there?
  5. What challenges do they pose to the populations of your world (e.g. to transport, communication etc)?
  6. Which regions of your world are entirely uninhabitable?
  7. Why are they uninhabitable?
  8. What caused them to be this way?
  9. Has anyone tried to live in them before?
  10. Are there any animals which can survive in these deserts/wastes?
  11. Which animals are most revered in your world/cultures?
  12. Which animals are most feared?
  13. Are there any animals which can use magic, or which are inherently magical?
  14. Are there any animals which are hunted because of their magical properties?
  15. Which animals, if any, are domesticated?
  16. What are their roles?
  17. Can any animals communicate with non-magic using humans?
  18. Which plants are used for magic?
  19. Which plants are poisonous?
  20. Which plants have healing properties?
  21. Are there any plants which are both?
  22. Is there any animal or plant so rare as to be priceless?
  23. Are there any minerals/rocks which are sought after as sources of magic, power, or food for your peoples?
  24. Which metals or rocks are seen as valuable?
  25. Assuming your world does not work on a system of barter – which metal, rock, plant, or animal products are used as currency in your world?

 

Culture, Society, And History

  1. How old do the peoples of your world think it is?
  2. Is history most often recorded in the written or oral tradition?
  3. What are five key events in your worlds history?
  4. Do all societies understand the history of your world the same way?
  5. How do they differ?
  6. How have the events of history changed the culture and society of your world/countries?
  7. Do the cultures of your world share any common  traditions or beliefs?
  8. Is education available to all?
  9. Is there an ‘elite’ form of education (e.g. further education abroad, as in Medieval Europe)?
  10. Are there any universal laws in your world?
  11. How are they enforced?
  12. Are any of your countries entirely (read 85 – 95%) illiterate or lawless?
  13. Who rules these countries?
  14. Do the rulers choose to maintain this state of being? If so why?
  15. To what extent do the cultures of your world value music, performance, and art?
  16. Are there any martial cultures in your world?
  17. Are there any nomadic societies in your world?
  18. How do the cultures at different extremes interact with one another?
  19. Is diplomacy common to all cultures?
  20. Is there an ‘Invisible’ culture (for example, a caste of nobles or travellers which span the world).
  21. Are there any cultures which exist in isolation?
  22. How important is the written word in your world?
  23. Are there accepted rules of engagement in war between your countries?
  24. How do the people of your world view beauty regimes and products? (Doe such things exist)?
  25. How do your cultures view sex work?

 

World-Building Resources

World Building 101

Welcome To World Building

 

World-Building 101

World-building, in short, is the process of constructing and populating a world and/or universe as stage on which stories can play out.

It’s complex, it’s time consuming, but it is, in fact, a basic and essential skill for a writer and despite what you may have been told it is involved in every single novel or story produced. You see, even when you set a story in the real world you undertake a degree of world-building; you edit and polish the world in which you wish to set your story. You decide which sections of the real world you represent to the reader just as you do when using a world of your own invention.

This kind of world-building, however, is not the matter at hand; we’re all about creating a new universe today.

 

What Does A World Need?

A question half as silly and twice and important as it seems.

What would you say a world needs? Well, land, water, sky, plants, and animals, right? All the basic stuff of life. Correct, and yet at the same time so very wrong;

Yes, if you wish your world to sustain life plausibly it should definitely contain all of these things. However, your world also needs a huge amount of other, rather more man made, things to make it a worthy stage.

Here’s a list of things your world will need.

Your (Very) Basic World-Building Checklist:

  1. Geography
  2. History
  3. Languages
  4. Society
  5. Culture (they are different, trust me)
  6. Religions
  7. Creation myths
  8. Magic  (?)
  9. Technology
  10. Industry
  11. History
  12. Transportation
  13. Agriculture
  14. Cuisines
  15. Flora
  16. Fauna
  17. Art
  18. Music
  19. Literature
  20. Multiple countries

…. Phew, right? That’s a lot of work.

Thankfully it doesn’t need to take you 30 years and a degree in linguistics to get all of this done; most writers will never do a Tolkien style historiography and language building exercise. The truth is you don’t need to, either; as long as you present the world in a way that makes sense your readers will follow what you’re saying.

World-building is rather like the guiding pencil strokes and artist makes before applying paint to a canvas; it should be invisible in the finished product.

 

The Three Truths Of World-Building

  1. World-Building Is For The Author: the majority of the work you put into world-building will go unnoticed, and that is fine. In fact, that’s the way it should be. Picture your world as a swan; what the spectator sees should be effortless while the legs, so to speak, work overtime beyond their sight.
  2. World-Building Is A Precursor To Writing: if your world-building process goes on and on and on and on… well, it may be time to stop. Remember the above point; create your world with broad strokes and nail down the structural integrity before and then put it to the test by writing a story set within it.
  3. The World Supports The Story: this is self-explanatory, but the clarify – the world you build should service and support the stories you tell. Your story should never serve the purpose of describing or otherwise showcasing your world.

 

 

Getting Started: Inspiration And Diversion

Every fictional world will have one foot in reality and one in some form of fantasy. By this I mean that it will take inspiration from the real world and from fiction, day dreams, or other fabricated worlds (as opposed to the fantasy genre). For those who write fantasy, the genre, Tolkien, Gaiman, Hobb, and Le Guinn (amongst others) are likely to be of great inspiration, for example.

The real trick is twisting and developing your own world until it becomes something new and different enough to be unrecognisable in almost every way.

 

How can this be done? Well, in the same way that you discovered the seed of your new world; by asking questions of the world that already exists.

Ask yourself what drives your world, which countries are at war, which support each other, and which stay out of it. Ask yourself if there is a main religion, or hundreds of small ones, or if there is no religion at all.

Ask yourself what your world considers to be the single, universal crime – what is the one thing that all cultures agree is morally abhorrent?

And then ask yourself what colour the fire is, because, you know, there has to be a goofy twist somewhere.

 

 

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

Creating Characters That Wow

You can find complementary character sheets to use  here (basic) and here (plot centric). You can also find a fillable plot and character development booklet (in proto-stages) here. These resources are free to use, but if you wish to enable me to make more you can buy me a Kofi.

 

Once you have found and developed an idea for your next best-seller it’s about time to think about your cast of characters. Anyone will tell you that characters must be “rounded”, “have personality”, and “seem to breathe”… but people don’t really tell you how to do that.

The character sheets linked above can help you to make a note of the most basic information about your characters; their name, age, role in the plot etc, and the development booklet can help you to get a grasp of what kind of person they are (would they give someone their last bit of chocolate, or not? You know, the big questions).

 

But how do you get to that stage if you have not first created a well-rounded character?

 

World-building

The process of creating your story world is long and very often tiresome; the amount of blood, sweat, and tears that go into this labour of love are very often staggering. So why should you put all of this work to wast by not allowing it to inform your character creation process?

For the record, I don’t mean that there are people out there who just make a fantasy world and then have their character grow up in Brooklyn.

 

I mean that if you create a horrible, dystopic world with twisted morals your character will have some horrible and twisted morals too. Their story, their journey, should be slowly coming to see what the reader knows already, or not depending upon what you have in mind for them.

Morals, politics, and personal character do not exist in a vacuum; parents, family, teachers, friends, and colleagues all have an effect on how we develop over time. So do the politics of our time, key events in the world, and our level of education.

 

In short, if your character was raised by very conservative, very religious, poorly educated people in a very poor, conservative, and poorly educated community it is unlikely that they will become very liberal, very rich, and very educated without undergoing a process of change. It is your job as a writer to explain how this happened.

 

Taking Stock of the Facts

Think of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird; she learns from her very educated, fairly liberal (for his day) father, but is still influenced by, and exerts influence on, her friends. For those who have read Go Set A Watchman, you will also remember that as an adult Scout realises that Atticus is not nearly as forward thinking as she had thought.

Scout was informed by her town, her school, and her father, but did have her own moral sensibilities. When she left her small town she changed yet again, and returned to a place that felt strange to her.

 

This is excellent character creation and development.

 

Harper Lee did this by ensuring that Scouts family and childhood created her, but the world, the events of her life, and of course Lee’s own feelings, shaped her into something more adult, more well-rounded, and more deserving of our understanding than she might have been had she never developed.

 

Flaws and Strengths

One trick to creating truly believable characters is not to give them a plethora of strengths and skills, only to sprinkle a bad temper a low mathematical ability onto it in the guise of “flaws”. The trick is to make their flaws a result of their strengths. For example, “loyalty” and “possessiveness” could be two sides of the same coin. As could “emotionally strong” and “callous”.

Think carefully about what the downsides of certain strengths are because everything has its downside.

 

A Distinct Tone of Voice

Especially important for protagonists is their voice; the way in which they narrate and speak should be recognisable almost instantly. There are those who say that the reader should be able to tell who is speaking before you name the character, but that truly is a feat of incredible skill. Not even the best can do this all the time.

The way the character speaks should be a reflection of everything that has gone into creating them. Consider;

  • Their sense of humour
  • Their level of education
  • If they are speaking their first language
  • Who they are speaking to
  • What their goal is

Characters, unlike real people, never speak without purpose. They don’t waffle, rabbit-on, or give pointless information unless they have a reason to do so. Those reasons could be;

  • Anxiety
  • A desire to distract
  • A need to mislead
  • An attempt to communicate something covertly

 

Don’t get too fancy when it comes to creating a speech pattern for your character; it should sound natural and be consistent throughout the narration. To that end it is often easiest to base the pattern of speech on someone, or on a dialect, that you know fairly well. You can make small tweaks to make it less obvious, but a forced or stilted voice is the surest way to put readers off of a character, especially when the story is narrated in first person.

 

Mistakes and Motives 

Whether your character is the hero or villain you need make sure that they intrigue and infuriate your readers in equal measures.

This is achieved by balancing their mistakes with their motives; make their reasoning for doing whatever they do understandable. Ensure that anyone could see themselves feeling the same way in that position so that, even if they disagree with your characters choices, they at least see where they are coming from. Then balance this empathy inducing method with mistakes and trip ups which are innately tied to their personal flaws.