The Pre-JuNoWriMo Character Development Series, Part 4: Character Family Trees

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.

Final Thoughts

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

The Pre-JuNoWriMo Character Development Series, Part 3: Personality Tests

In the previous instalments of this series, we looked at tools to help you create characters. This week, I want to shift gears and discuss how to develop characters that have already sparked. This exercise is ideal for when you know a few things about a character, or maybe you just have their vibe, and you’re looking for ways to bring them into a story.

This week, we’re all about personality…and more specifically, testing that personality. There are tons of personality tests out there, such as Myers-Briggs, IQ, and EQ tests. Some have image-based questions, where you choose your favorite image, and this reveals something innate about who you are. Others ask you questions that you answer on a sliding scale, for example.

For the purposes of this week’s discussion, I’m going to use 16 Personalities. When it comes to personality tests for characters, this is my personal favorite. I’m going to guide you through how I took this test for my protagonist, and what was revealed about him. It’ll be a treat for us all to see if the results match up with what I wrote for his character profile/study.

I’ve not used this tool for him yet. Let’s see what happens!

For questions that aren’t historically appropriate to a 17th-century fella, I either chose the neutral position or imagined the historically-accurate version of the question if possible.

As you can see, I filled out every page of the 16 Personalities test. I tried to free James from my input and go with my first instinct for him. I didn’t want to shape the results of the test at all, especially as this is a character I have already developed.

The Results

James came out with an ISTJ-T personality type. According to 16 Personalities, he is:

  • Introverted
  • Observant
  • Thinking
  • Judging
  • Turbulent

I’m not sure if I’d consider him turbulent over assertive, but he was pretty close to a 50/50 on that. As for the other key traits, I’d say they’re spot on with how I’ve already developed him.

What follows this result is eight pages of in-detail reading. I’m only going to show and discuss two of those pages. Mostly, this is because this blog post would be about thirty pages long if I got into some of the other results pages—but if you use 16 Personalities for your character (or yourself), I recommend reading each results page because there’s plenty of insightful information available there.

I’d say of these strengths, the only one I’m not so sure my character has in spades is calmness. He’s not a total loose cannon but he does have a short fuse.

16 Personalities really hit the mark with James’s weaknesses. These aren’t his only weaknesses, but they certainly encompass the most important ones—especially his stubbornness early in the book and his insensitivity later in the book.

Final Thoughts

The nice thing about having these tests available on the internet for free is that I don’t have to hunt down my old college psychology textbook. I hope you’ll take the chance to poke through some of the tests available out there and see which ones can help you develop your characters.

Also, sometimes I get ideas for ways I can challenge my characters just from reading through the results.

Check in next week for one more character development exercise to help you prepare for next month’s challenge!

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

The Pre-JuNoWriMo Character Development Series, Part 2: Character Resumés

Last week, I walked you through creating character profiles designed to help you get to know your character. But not everyone has the time or desire to write a 10-page profile, so this week I have another suggestion for how you can get to know your characters (and their story).

Write their resumés.

I know writing a resumé can sound like a drag, but I promise I have more fun writing them for my characters than myself, with all the satisfaction that accompanies finishing this task.

The only tricky part is for authors who are writing stories that don’t exist in our modern, contemporary, tangible Earth sort of world. Being that my own novel is historical fiction, I’m going to show you that it’s possible. I’ll write James’s from the start of the Pequot War, the main external conflict of my novel.

My Protagonist’s Resumé

James Stanworth

Fort Saybrooke

Connecticut

SUMMARY

James is skilled in negotiations and foreign languages. Skills include reading, writing, diplomacy, animal husbandry with an affinity for horses, carpentry, swimming, and archery. With experience as a trapper, trader, and interpreter, James is a natural leader and possesses a growth mindset. He’s an intrepid traveler, having crossed the Atlantic on the Bonaventurein 1633.

OBJECTIVE

To become an interpreter for the colonies of New England, to continue developing deeper knowledge of both the languages and cultures of First Nations within those colonies and foster a mutually beneficial relationship between settlers and First Nations. To own and run a trading post.

EMPLOYMENT EXPERIENCE

Assistant Trapper and Trader to Jasper Peterson, The New World, 1633-1635

  • Learned Iroquois and Algonquin tongues
  • Hunted both deer and beaver
  • Carved a canoe out of a cedar trunk
  • Traded with First Nations and other settlers

Contract Negotiator, Colony of Connecticut, 1635-1637

  • Negotiated land deals between Governor John Winthrop Jr. of Connecticut and First Nations
  • Translated contract documents from English into Algonquin languages

Interpreter, Fort Saybrooke, 1637-Present

  • Negotiates on behalf of Lieutenant Lionel Abner
  • Reports regularly to Governor John Winthrop Jr. about progress in preventing war between First Nations and settlers
  • Liaises with Dutch military allies and trade competitors

Discussion

James was not formally educated for reasons that will be revealed in my book, even though he comes from a wealthy family. But his father did impart him with the skills to read and write, which serve him well throughout the book and become some of his most relied-upon abilities. However, because he didn’t go away to school, I chose to omit an “EDUCATION” section.

But you can see how I’ve brought this 17th-century character into the modern world. I kept the dates of his employment honest to his time, but obviously he wouldn’t fill out a resumé. If I truly wanted to be as close to accurate as possible, he might have a referral letter from a previous employer—maybe Jasper Peterson (this name might change, by the way—I haven’t decided yet).

There are also some areas where I brought James’s personality through. He prefers hanging out with horses to hanging out with people, and he doesn’t like the Dutch all that much—but then, as a tradesman from England at a time when England will soon be at war with the Dutch, that’s not that hard to imagine. My point though is that you can bring your character to life through your choices in wording elements of their resume.

By the way, this exercise only took me about twenty minutes, which makes it a great pre-writing exercise.

As a bonus exercise, you can write a scene with your character interviewing for a job!

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

The Pre-JuNoWriMo Character Development Series, Part 1: Character Profiles

You’ve decided to write a novel…now what? Whether or not you intend to do some planning this month before JuNoWriMo kicks off, I’m going to help you start to think about ways to develop characters. It doesn’t matter if you’re a novice or seasoned writer—thinking about characters in new or different ways can energize the development task and get you revved up to bring them to life come June.

For the next four weeks, I’ll guide you through four different approaches to character development. Hopefully one of them will strike a chord with you. I hope too that if you have any questions, you’ll comment on these posts.

This week, I’m going to start off with writing your character’s profile. If you want to write with authorial authority, you need to know as much about your character as possible. I’m going to encourage you not to write backstory.

You’re probably thinking, “What? No backstory? Did my character just hatch out of the ground fully formed?”

Well, maybe—maybe not. That’s really your call. But the main reason I’m going to encourage you to steer clear of backstories is they’re often arbitrarily created when they’re used as a starting point.

The Backstory Dilemma

Say you have a character who is a cop. You decide, based on that career, that the character’s father was a cop, too. Maybe, because when the father was alive, he was always working and never around, your character has issues trusting people.

It’s not terrible. But I think it’s going about things the wrong way. What if, instead, you decided that your character has trouble trusting people first? What if that leads you—when thinking of the father—to his having a second, secret family? Maybe halfway through the story, one of your character’s secret half-siblings commits a crime. Your cop character is blackmailed into making the charges go away in order to keep the secret and avoid embarrassment (for self, for the character’s mother, etc…).

Can you see how the second option—developed from a flaw and not a backstory—created both the backstory and some kind of struggle for the character?

If you start with backstory, you risk developing backwards and missing opportunities for conflict.

Character Profiles

What is a character profile, and how do you write one?

Let’s start with what a character profile isn’t. It’s not a listing of your character’s 100 favorites. It’s not a set of prompts to determine what your character looks like. All of that is superficial.

Rather, a character profile is an in-depth examination of what makes your character tick. When I wrote a profile for my protagonist, it came out at ten pages long. To be fair, one of the reasons it was ten pages was that I was doing it as a writing exercise, with the length dictated by my MFA mentor. But the freedom to take up that space allowed me to work out the less tangible qualities of my protagonist.

Character Profile Sections

For those writers who want a little more guidance, don’t worry; I won’t leave you high and dry. I’m going to break down for you how I approach character profiles, in hopes that it gives you a starting place. You don’t have to hold to it exactly if you don’t want to.

Also, for the sake of not worrying over differences in document formatting, let’s presume that you’re going to write a 3,000-word character profile (that’s 10 pages at about 300 words each). This is how I suggest breaking it down:

  • Character’s fears – 500 words
  • Character’s goals – 500 words
  • Character’s strengths – 500 words
  • Character’s weaknesses – 500 words
  • How the character will grow by the end of the book – 500 words
  • What/who hinders the character and how – 250 words
  • What/who helps the character and how – 250 words

Three thousand words in a character profile really isn’t all that much, when you break it down into parts. Take each part one at a time. You don’t have to write them in this order, either. I tend to, but I also believe in letting inspiration guide your energy output.

Using the Character Profile

When June 1 arrives and you’re about to start writing, are you going to take out this 10-page document and comb through it for quick facts? Probably not. That’s why I’m going to suggest just one more step:

After you write a character’s profile, make a list of the basic elements you determined in each section.

For example, if you write 500 words about why your character fears relying on others, his own mortality, and heights, you don’t want to comb through those pages to find those fears. Make a list of them for quick reference.

Final Thoughts

Do you have to create 10,000-word profiles for every major character in your novel? It’d be really nice to do that, if you have the time. But if not, start with your protagonist. I’ve found, when pressed for time, that just having my main character fleshed out like this can be enough for me to decide how other characters should be developed on the fly.

For example, if my character has trust issues, I know I’m going to put another in my protagonist’s path who either is or seems untrustworthy.

Give it a shot—write a character profile in the next week. Then, come back to try another way to develop your character pre-JuNoWriMo!

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

Jump-Start Your Novel Writing Month… Without Cheating by Larry Brooks

Mapping out your novel can help you avoid lulls in production. Check out tips from Larry Brooks on how to plan ahead and give your novel a “jump-start.”

According to the “rules” of National Novel Writing Month – no matter what month you undertake the work – there is nothing that prevents you from planning your novel out in advance.  Doing so – solidifying your concept and premise, and laying out the narrative expositional sequence itself – is perhaps the most useful and functional NaNoWriMo tip you can find.

Continue reading “Jump-Start Your Novel Writing Month… Without Cheating by Larry Brooks”

Writing a Premise

At some point, someone is going to ask you, “What’s your novel about?” If not in those exact words, you’re sure to field the question in some form. Do you have an answer? Sure, your novel is complex, full of characters, intricacies, histories, motivations, breakups, and makeups, but what would you write on the back cover of your published novel? What could you say in under 60 seconds to sell your story?

You need a premise. It’s key to staying on task, reminding yourself what you’re doing all month long, and letting others know what’s got you so focused/frazzled/frenzied.

What is a premise?

A premise is a one or two sentence (25-35 word) introduction to your character, his/her conflict, and the hook. It’s the foundation of your story. It works double time. You can use it to keep you on track, or as an elevator pitch to sell your completed novel.

Two ways to write your premise:

1. A present-tense statement. <— Best for planners

2. A “what-if”question. <— Best for pantsers

Whether you use the first or the second is completely up to you. The first option gives a much clearer guideline to follow while the second raises a question, but offers no answers. How open-ended would you like it to be? How much wiggle room would you like to have as you work on your novel? That will determine the best premise style for you.

What are the benefits of writing a premise?

1. A clear idea of what your novel is about. It forces you to break your idea down to its basic components, and ensures that you have the ever-important element that sets your novel apart from any other – the hook.
2. A guideline to refer to at any time during your novel writing process. As you write, many scenes will come to mind, and you will probably fall in love with most of them. Are they all relevant? Probably not. How will you know which ones are worth using? Your premise will make it painfully (or delightfully) obvious which scenes are necessary and which scenes can hit the road.
3. Takes less time and knowledge of the details than writing a summary. To write a summary, you need to know exactly what happens in your story. For a premise, you only need the bones. No meat necessary.
4. Less strict than a summary, leaving lots of room to move around. If you write your novel based on a summary, you will probably feel locked into some ideas and scenes that are present in the summary. There are specific occurrences that you’ll allude to in a summary. In a premise, again, it’s just the bones. You can dress it up however you want.
5. Having an elevator pitch ready. There’s no faster way to say what your novel is about. This is what agents, publishers, and readers are interested in. What is the purpose of your story?

Here are examples of premises using The Hunger Games:

1. Katniss takes her younger sister’s place as tribute in a fight-to-the-death reality television show. She not only fights her competitors, but herself, to win sponsor support, and stay alive.

2. What if 24 children are forced to leave their families to participate in a fight-to-the-death reality television show, only one coming out alive, to entertain the people of their world?

With a few planning days left before the 30 days of writing begin, it’s a great time to write your premise. Remember, you only need to know three things to do it. They are:
1. Your main character
2. Your character’s conflict.
3. The hook – What makes it different.

If you’re not quite ready to write your own premise, I highly recommend writing premises for your favourite books and movies. This will give you great practice in breaking hundred of pages or 2 hours down to their bare bones. For each premise your write, include the character, conflict, and hook, and stay between 25 and 35 words. Once you’ve done this for four or five books/movies, you should be ready to do it for your JuNoWriMo novel.

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You might also be interested in:

Be a JuNoWriMo 2014 Featured Author
Be a JuNoWriMo 2014 Featured Author
Pre-JuNoWriMo Checklist
Pre-JuNoWriMo Checklist
Prewriting for JuNoWriMo
Prewriting for JuNoWriMo

Pre-JuNoWriMo Checklist

JuNoWriMo is just around the corner! Wow. April really flew right by us, and May is for all the planning, excitement, and preparation we like. Hopefully, you’re ready and feeling good about getting prepared. Here’s what you should get in place this month:

  • Premise – Who is your main character? What does he/she want? What stands in the way? Boil your entire novel down to one sentence.
  • Milestones – Know the turning points in your story.
  • Get to know your characters – You can search the internet for their faces, role play and take personality quizzes as them, and interview them. Be sure to figure out what they want, what they like and dislike, where they spend most of their time, where they live, how they react to various things, who they like and dislike, and what they look like.
  • Writing space – Choose nice, comfortable places where you are likely to feel inspired and be productive. Now is a good time to stake out those coffee shops, delis, libraries, and bookstores in your neighborhood to see which have the right noise-quiet balance, availability of writing fuel, and comfort.
  • Schedule – Some people have to juggle things around and/or squeeze in writing time here and there, 15 minutes at a time. That’s fine, but if possible, it’s nice to set a time to write every day. Routine is good!
  • Develop a plan for the worst – You may decide you don’t like your novel any more. You may get bogged down at work. You may question your ability to write a novel. You may get off track and end up writing something that’s not quite what you planned. You may not hit the daily goals you set for yourself. What would you do? All of those things can be scary/discouraging when they happen, but they can all be overcome with [cue dun-dun-dunnn] a plan! Make a list of your three worst JuNoWriMo nightmares, and decide how you’d deal with them. They won’t be so scary after that!
  • Research – If there’s anything you’re not sure of, look into it. If some parts of your novel absolutely must be factual, do the work now. Research can be quite the time-suck, especially when you’re just looking for a way to procrastinate. Protect your writing time. Keep June research-free by getting the facts in May.
  • Writing tools – Computer, netbook, Alphasmart, notebooks, binders, pens, pencils… Make sure they’re there and ready with lots of space/ink/storage for your word avalanche.
  • Support system – You need people in your corner! Tell people what you’re doing, but only the people who will encourage you and be positive about the challenge you’ve chosen to take on.
  • Meal planning – We highly recommend cooking lots of freezable meals or cutting deals with spouses. You probably won’t have much time for meal preparations, and when you have some, you’ll want to spend it writing, or in the forums.

Well, that about covers it! If you manage to get those things all sorted this month, you’ll be well on your way to a successful JuNoWriMo season. Be sure to look out for more blog posts which will help you out with accomplish some of the tasks mentioned here.

On Scene Lists: What Your Story Needs

***This post is one of several in our prewriting series. To read the first post, click here.***

Only a few days left until June! Are you ready? Here’s Aaron Pogue’s last post in the prewriting series. Complete all the steps and you’ll be set to have a great JuNoWriMo writing experience. Good luck!

Aaron Pogue

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We’ve been talking about long synopses and scene lists this week. Yesterday I went into some detail on what scene lists are for.

Today I want to tell you how to write one. It shouldn’t be hard, but it’s definitely going to take some time and thought. So let’s get started!

Meat on the Bones

By this point in your prewriting process, you have everything you need to make a story. You’ve got a beginning and an end. You’ve got characters, you’ve got conflict, you’ve got an overview of the plot. Making the novel requires you to flesh out that skeleton, though. Continue reading “On Scene Lists: What Your Story Needs”

On Scene Lists: Building a Novel

***This post is one of several in our prewriting series. To read the first post, click here.***

Hopefully you’ve been making great progress on your prewriting and are almost all ready for June. If you’ve been following the steps in this series by Aaron Pogue, you will go into JuNoWriMo prepared. It’s the best way to start!

Today Aaron talks about writing a long synopsis, the biggest weapon in your prewriting arsenal.

Aaron Pogue

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This week, your big JuNoWriMo prewriting assignment is to develop a long synopsis, or scene list.  Here is a brief description of a scene list:

A scene list is primarily useful as a prewriting or editing tool. It forces you to map out the actual structure of your story, down to the very building blocks, and then gives you an easy place to spot errors or weak points, to tinker and rearrange.

To make a scene list, you start at the very beginning of your story, and write one to two paragraphs describing what happens in every scene. When you’re finished, you’ll have your entire plot down on paper — every twist and every turn — without all that messy set design, characterization, and description.

That’s certainly how we’re using it this week. Today I want to go into a little more detail than those two short paragraphs give. Continue reading “On Scene Lists: Building a Novel”

On Narrative Scenes: Writing a Scene

***This post is one of several in our prewriting series. To read the first post, click here.***

Have you been dreaming up ideas for your JuNoWriMo novel? Better yet, why not do some real, tangible prewriting you can lean on during June? Writer’s block will have no chance!

Here’s the next in our series on prewriting by Aaron Pogue.

Aaron Pogue

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This week we’re talking about narrative scenes — the storytelling elements that clarify your characters and progress your plot.

How Scenes Work

As I said yesterday, every scene in your story must move your story forward. That can consistent of character-building, occasionally, and really only in the first act, but in most genres you want to move the plot forward in virtually every scene. Continue reading “On Narrative Scenes: Writing a Scene”