The very first time I tried NaNoWriMo, I found out about it and joined mere days before the challenge. I didn’t prep anything save to decide I wanted to write Fantasy. I thought, for some reason, that Fantasy would be the easiest genre to write because I could make up my own rules. Having read Tolkien before, I don’t know why on earth I imagined this would make the task easier.
I managed to do some halfway decent worldbuilding on the fly, but aside from my two main characters, the others were mere afterthoughts—place holders for actions and dialogue that needed to move my two protagonists forward. (Yeah, because I also decided two main characters was a great idea for my first ever novel. Maybe I suffered from temporary insanity back in ’08 brought on by the recession? I’m running with that.)
Anyway, I reached a part in the novel where I didn’t even have a name for a character, so she got the label [PM1] for “protagonist’s mom.” Talk about an identity crisis.
Let me fast-forward a few years to when I was doing some personal genealogical research. I realized just how fascinating it is to think about where we come from, generations back. Take what I say next with a grain of salt because I haven’t verified it by going to England seeing the records for myself, but I managed to trace one line of my family tree back to the time of Alfred the Great. Stories came to mind for all those individuals—regardless of whether I’m actually their descendant. One of them helped inspire my protagonist for my current work-in-progress.
Understanding his family tree and how those people moved in the world helped me understand him better, which is why this week, in my fourth and final pre-JuNoWriMo character development post, I’m recommending you make your character’s family tree.
For Family Tree Newbs
If you’ve never made a family tree before, the process can seem daunting. But, if you take it one step at a time, I don’t doubt that you’ll have fun! There are a number of programs and apps you can use for this sort of thing, but as many of them actually link your tree to real people, I’m going to suggest you go with old-fashioned pencil and paper for this exercise. You can always take a photo of it if you want to store it digitally.
So, I’ll talk you through my process for making a family tree. By all means if you come across a different method, especially those recommended by actual genealogists, feel free to follow that guidance if you like. For this exercise, it doesn’t really matter how you create the family tree—just that you create it.
How I Make Character Family Trees
I start out by writing my character’s name in a square. Seems easy, no? I also write their birthdate. I draw a line to the sides to connect them to any siblings—circles for gals, triangles for guys. I know, in our progressive-thinking world it seems horrible to differentiate by gender. I’m a feminist, I promise. But if you’re making a large family tree, some kind of pictorial distinction can help. If you don’t want to use these shapes, or you don’t want to separate by gender but by something else, please be my guest!
I draw a vertical line to my protagonist’s parents, who are connected by a double line to signify marriage. If they had the children in the branch below theirs out of wedlock, I put a slash through that double line. You can already see how I tell a story with simple lines, names, and birthdates. I continue the process, moving up the family tree until I’ve gone back as far as I feel I must.
Even though I went back about 1200 years on my own family tree, I didn’t go back so far on my protagonist’s. But, his family are descended from the aristocracy, so I did go back several generations at least on his paternal side, since that’s how surnames are passed in British history. If your protagonist is from a matriarchal society, you’d want to follow their maternal line.
Okay, one more step to go—a special step I take for character family trees. For each person on the tree, I write one or two notes about who they are as a person, what they did in their life, and/or any metaphors I want to attach to them. This is a ginormous help to me in my drafting process, especially if I have many characters to keep track of.
Have you ever made a family tree for your characters? Is this an exercise you plan to try this year? If you’ve been a pantser in the past, have you thought about becoming a planner this year, or do you thrive on the spontaneity of going into a 50K in a month challenge completely uncertain of what you’ll write?
I’d love to know! Check in on the comments or catch me on Twitter! Happy pre-writing and writing!
Margaret McNellis has been volunteering with JuNoWriMo for years. She holds an MA in English & Creative Writing and is currently pursuing her MFA in Fiction. Her WIP is a historical novel set in the 17th century. Margaret’s short fiction has appeared in Fictitious Magazine, See Spot Run, The Penman Review, The Copperfield Review, and Dual Coast Magazine. To check out some of her fiction and poetry, visit her website. You can also connect with her on Twitter.