How to Develop Dynamic Characters for #NaNoWriMo

The “Star Wars” films (and books, and games, and beyond) feature laser swordfights in space. They include creatures that range from reptilian Rodians to (unfortunately) gangly Gungans. But chances are, when you think of the galaxy far, far away, you think of Luke Skywalker, staring hopefully at the twin suns, or Princess Leia, vaulting into the garbage chute instead of waiting for the men to save her.

Even if you have the most heart-pounding plot, dynamite dialogue, and wacky worldbuilding ever written, your story will succeed or fail on the strength of its characters.

If you missed last week’s kickoff for the #NaNoWriMo Monday blog series, it was all about outlining. Time, like the Death Star’s tractor beam, draws us inexorably closer to #NaNoWriMo—so what better time to talk about character development?

Here are 5 unique ways to channel “the Force” of character creation.

Interview Your Characters

How do you get to know new people? (If you’re anything like me, you make bad puns to break the tension, and if they laugh, you decide to keep them.)

Regardless of your conversational style, you get to know people by talking to them.

This presents an apparent problem for character creation. No matter how real your characters may feel to you, they aren’t real in a literal sense. You can’t invite your protagonist out for coffee and pick their brain about their goals, fears, and favorite childhood toy. Nevertheless, I’m a strong advocate of interviewing your characters.

Very often, when people say “interview your characters,” they mean “download a character sheet and fill in the blanks.” Character sheets are the next tip, but that’s not what I mean by interviewing your characters.

Getfreewrite.com explains, “To explore your protagonist’s psyche, you need to ask deep and searching questions and dig into as much detail as you can. If you find that you’re struggling with this exercise, you might want to try the ‘empty chair’ visualization. Put a chair opposite you and imagine that your character is sitting in it. Ask them the following questions, as you might do if it was a friend sitting in the chair.”

There’s a helpful set of suggested questions after the link, but feel free to come up with your own according to your particular novel’s needs.

The important thing is to write what your character would say in a freeform conversation, ignoring the constraints of a character traits sheet.

In the past, I’ve gotten a touch too invested in this exercise and found my characters talking back, insisting that I should know them better since I’m the author. It’s trippy, but it works.

Fill out a Character Sheet

Character sheets may be nothing new, but they’re a tried-and-true method of ensuring your characters have layers.

If you aren’t comfortable developing a character questionnaire on your own, the Internet gods have seen fit to bestow multiple options upon the writing community.

(Thanks, fellow bloggers!)

Squibler provides both lists of both core questions and ways to develop your own questions. Epiguide’s character sheet is extensive and also helpfully links to alternative options at the top. Finally, FreelanceWriting presents a toolbox for narrowing down questions according to the length of your intended story.

Depending on the scope of your #NaNoWriMo goals, you might need to know your villain’s greatest shame but not her favorite breakfast food.

Even if your character sheet is simpler than these suggestions, they’re still an excellent starting point for both new and experienced writers.

Build an Inspiration Board

Above all else, #NaNoWriMo has one all-powerful rule: Stay off social media and keep writing. Unfortunately, I’m about to hijack your good intentions with an alternative suggestion: Pinterest.

Hear me out.

Personally, I struggle with visual ideation. I have a strong sense of how my characters speak, their driving emotions, and their private thoughts, but I grapple immensely with imagining their faces, outfits, or environments in any degree of detail. Largely, this is due to my dyspraxia (worth a future post all its own,) but I don’t think I’m alone.

If you struggle to conceptualize the visual elements of your NaNo novel, a Pinterest board might be exactly what your brain needs.

I waited until now, in the throes of my thousandth revision, to build Pinterest board for my novel, “The Fire Breathes”—but I truly wish I’d done it before now. For the first time, I have a collection of actors’ faces that evoke my protagonist, Kasai San. An assortment of human/dragon hybrid concepts strikes my imagination like lightning when my inspiration runs low.

Best of all, if I see a picture that sparks something true, memorable, but admittedly irrelevant inside me, I can set it aside for later, when I need a flash of fresh creative fervor.

Go wild. Cast your characters like you have a movie deal. Gather artwork that embodies, either literally or aesthetically, what you’re striving to show on the page.

In the moments when finishing #NaNoWriMo feels utterly impossible, go back to your boards.

Otherwise, seriously—turn off your Internet and keep writing.

Freewrite in First-Person

Your #NaNoWriMo novel might be written in first-person, third-person close, third-person omniscient, or maybe (if you’re crazy) second-person POV.

Regardless of your preferred tense, writing in first-person undeniably connects you to your character’s inner world.

Alicia Rasley advises freewriting your character’s thoughts on multiple psychological concepts. These include:

  • Learning Style
  • Openness
  • Dominant Sense
  • Optimist or Pessimist?

By allowing your character to “think out loud” in first-person POV, you might uncover some true gems of characterization that would have remained buried otherwise.

When you’re done with Rasley’s exercise, try Leigh Shulman’s on for size. These 9 writing prompts are less mental and more literal. How does your character decide what to eat for dinner? What was a time when his fatal flaw proved to be his undoing? What was the scariest experience of his life so far?

Shulman’s third tip leads me to the final of my 5 character creation activities.

Take the Myers-Briggs

I promise this isn’t another Buzzfeed-style “Tell us your favorite burger topping and your first pet’s name and we’ll tell you what color your lightsaber should be” quiz. The Myers-Briggs actually works.

This short, free online personality test can tell you your character’s strengths, weaknesses, driving motivations, social style, and more.

The Myers-Briggs test defines 16 personality types according to varying combinations of introversion/extroversion, sensing/intuition, feeling/thinking, and judging/perceiving. Personally, I’m an ENFP, but my characters are all over the map.

After taking the test for the first time in high school, I decided to take it again several times, answering each question the way I thought my characters would.

I’m far from the first person to do this. Mandy Wallace has an entire blog series on applying the Myers-Briggs types to your characters, as does 16 Personalities. Helping Writers Become Authors even guides you through choosing conflicting types—which encourages interpersonal conflict in your fictional entourage.

Ultimately, the Myers-Briggs will teach you new things about your characters. It might even teach you a few things about yourself.

How do you usually prepare your characters before writing? Do you have a favorite technique you’ll be employing for #NaNoWriMo?

If you have an idea for next Monday’s #NaNoWriMo theme, I’d also love to hear that—you can find me on Twitter, Facebook, or right here in the comments.

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Until next week, keep creating!