Let’s Write a Novel: Creating Your Characters

Welcome to my first series! I’m excited to start sharing some of the tips, tricks, and systems I use when I’m designing a story, as well as my process for writing, editing, dealing with deadlines and writers, block, and anything else you could want to know.

I know many of you are probably thinking, “Why should we listen to you? You’ve never even been published!” You’re only partially correct. I have actually been published – a couple of times, in fact. I have stories and poems in various literary journals. And I have some self-published books laying around my apartment. That’s not what’s important.

What’s important is that I have written millions of words in the 13 years since I started writing. I have two separate degrees, one in creative writing, one in literature. I’ve spent the last 13 years dedicated to my writing. I never stopped – not even in university, when I really should have stopped. I spend nearly all of my free time daydreaming about the worlds that I’ve built. Creating lives for my characters, giving them depth.

My point being – people always say write about what you know. So I thought I’d write about what I know best – writing. You can feel free to ignore my advice. Hell, most of it might not even work for you. I’ve found in my life that writing is not a one-size-fits-all kind of art.

Everyone will tell you the “right” way to write. Don’t read your work before you’ve finished. Always write in the same place, at the same time. Never write in the same place – write when inspiration strikes. Don’t edit as you write. Do edit as you write. Don’t write from beginning to end, start where you’re most interested. Do write from beginning to end, or you’ll lose interest in the boring parts and never finish. Don’t write in 1st person. Don’t write in 2nd person. Don’t write in 3rd person.

Guys, writing is an art. I think people forget that because it’s not as “obvious” as some other forms of art, like painting or pottery. Or even poetry. But it’s still an art, and writers are artists. We have to be inspired, have dedication, work, and hone our craft, just like any other artist. And just like any other artist – not every style of writing is going to be the same.

This is all to say – if you’re a writer – experiment! Do what works for you! Write weird stuff that you enjoy. Write boring stuff you don’t enjoy. Do what you need to do to discover your style and voice. Everyone will tell you what it should be – but only you can know what it is.

Finding Your Main Character

Writing about only designing and developing characters is a little tricky for me. I usually design characters at the same time I’m working on the plot of a new story – I find them to be linked in my mind. However, if I wrote about that whole process, this blog post would end up the length of a book, and I don’t think anyone wants to sit down and read all of that right now. So I’ve divided these up into several different blog posts. And since you can’t have a story without good characters, this seemed like the natural place to start!

Let’s start with the obvious question: who is your main character? Where do they come from? What’s their gender? Sexual orientation? Race? How do those things inform their personality?

Honestly, I don’t have a lot of advice when it comes to choosing the main character. Usually, when I come up with a story idea, the idea comes with a half-formed main character when it hits me. So I don’t normally have to do the work of designing a character from scratch to fit the story. But I can walk you through some of the questions I ask myself when I’m determining my Main Character’s (MC) personality.

  1. Where did MC grow up?
  2. Who are their parents? What is their relationship? How does the relationship with the MC’s parents affect their personality?
  3. Was their hometown big? Small?
  4. Who was MC’s best friend growing up? Are they still friends now? If not, what happened?
  5. Are they still in their hometown when the story starts? If not, why did they leave?
  6. What are the MC’s skills? How were they developed? Are they natural gifts, or did the MC have to work for them?
  7. How does the conflict of the story personally affect the MC? What’s at stake for them?
  8. What is the MC’s life goal? Where do the see themselves in the future? Not where do you see them, where do they want to be? Those aren’t always the same thing.
  9. How does the MC get wrapped into the conflict of the story?

Names are Hard

Admission time: I’m not good with names. Honestly – you would think someone with a creative mind like mine would do a better job naming their characters. But no I am somehow terrible at it.

But enough of my complaints! Clearly, if it was really that much of a problem, I would have stopped writing long ago. I’ve found solutions.

When I was younger, I used to just make up names – particularly when it came to fantasy worlds. That worked… some of the time. There are several names I designed that I still like to this day. But many of them haven’t made the revision cut as I’ve revisited old stories again.

These days, I tend to use name generators to give me ideas. Sometimes I pick a name and change it to something else. Sometimes I change letters around to create a more unique-sounding name. Sometimes I use exactly what is generated.  It really depends on the character.

On that note – there’s a reason this is the second point in this post. I always design some of the character’s background before I choose a name. I find that having some personality in my head makes it easier to decide on a name that really fits my character.

Sometimes the name comes with the character when I design them. Sometimes, those names are quite cliche. But in my experience, it’s pointless to try to fight those names – they stick, no matter how hard I try.

But anyway, here are the generators I use:

Behind the Name: I like this generator because you can select what nationalities you want to target, tell it to use common or uncommon names, or tell it to generator just a ridiculous number of names in a row.

2019-03-27

I usually choose all categories so I can get a lot of different names. I also use the ‘First name and 3 middle names’ category just so I can get a lot of names to choose from. Then I generate!

2019-03-27 (1)

As you can see, you can get some pretty unique names using this generator – which is my goal. I don’t want to get the same names over and over again. Plus, it even works for fantasy lands. If I were looking for a fantasy name, I would take the first name that generated and adapt it.

Teimurazi = Temuiraz

Sounds like a villain to me. See how easy that was? Plus, I could use any of the other names generated for other characters, or even the same one if I was looking for a first or last name. Plus, as you can see in the upper corner – if I didn’t like any of those names, I can simply hit “regenerate” and continue my search.

Another good generator I use is Fantasy Name Generator. I love this one because – unlike the last one – it generates just a ton of options. Not only does it have sub-categories for every type of fantasy, sci-fi, etc kind of story you could possibly want to write – it also generates 10 names at a time when you use it. I’m not going to include screencaps because there’s just so much information on the website – you should just go check it out yourself!

The Supporting Cast

I would argue that your supporting characters are just as important to design as your MC. If you have a great MC and boring SCs, people aren’t going to want to read your story. Sorry, that’s the honest truth. So make sure you put in the work when you’re creating your supporting cast! Here are some archetypes to think about when you’re designing your story:

The Antagonist

This is always my first stop after I’ve created my main character. Who is the villain of the story? What drives them? What’s their story – how did they become evil? Are they unapologetically evil, or do they believe themselves to be doing good? Does their evilness come from their ambition, or from a desire to do good (and a belief that the only way to do good is through evil means?). These are all important questions.

I tend to design my antagonists just as thoroughly as I design my main characters, and apply the same set of rigorous questions to them. I encourage you to do this – no one wants a flat antagonist. Readers want to know what makes them tick, and why they do what they do. They want to know what threat they pose to the MC, and why.

Note: The villain is so important to the story that I’m going to dedicate a future article to designing your villain. Stay tuned!

The Love Interest

I don’t always have a love interest for my MC – sometimes my MC is a strong independent woman who don’t need no man. BUT I’m also a hopeless romantic, and I love a good slow-burn romance. So I do often find myself designing the perfect love interest for my MC. Here are the questions I typically ask about my Love Interests:

  1. Where did they meet the MC?
  2. Who fell for who first?
  3. When was/will be their first fight?
  4. Why is the LI in love with the MC?
  5. Why is the MC in love with the LI?
  6. What makes them a good couple?
  7. Is their relationship healthy?
  8. Who confessed their feelings first?
  9. What does their love story have to do with the main conflict of the story?
  10. Does their relationship last, or is it doomed to fail?

I also spend time on the questions I also ask of the MC – where did they grow up? Who was their best friend? How does the conflict of the story affect them? Etc.

The Partner in Crime

This is my favorite archetype of Supporting Character. You can also call this one the “Best Friend” or “Sidekick” but I like this name better. This is the ride-or-die character. The one that’s inseparable from the MC. These are often some of my favorite characters in stories – think Sam Gamgee in the Lord of the Rings, or Ron Weasley in Harry Potter. You get the idea.

I love these characters because they’re often loyal to a fault – which is awesome in a friend. When I’m designing this kind of character, I usually ask myself these questions:

  1. When and where did they meet the MC?
  2. Did they become friends immediately, or was there a time when they didn’t like each other?
  3. Do they ever fight? If so, about what?
  4. What do they do for fun?
  5. How do they bond?
  6. How did the friend get wrapped into the MC’s conflict?
  7. How do they affect the plot? Are they a catalyst? Do they betray the MC? If so, do they come back? When?

It’s important to figure out how your characters affect the plot of the story – or the character development of the MC. If they do neither, readers will wonder why they’re in the story at all.

Other Types

This is by no means an exhaustive list of character types – just the ones I find myself using often, or that I consider the most important. But there are dozens of other character archetypes you can pull from when you’re designing your characters. Or just skim it for inspiration – that’s what I do!

Riley-Style Writing Tip!

Here’s a trick I use when designing my characters:

Before I design the full plot of the story, I sit down with a pen and notebook and write down all the information I know about my characters. I start from the beginning – where they grew up, then I write down everything I know happened to them up until the story begins. That way I feel as though I really know my characters before I start to write. Plus, it helps me weave their backstory into the narrative in a more meaningful way.

20190328_113721

Above is an example. I chose a two-page spread in my notebook – which is pretty rare, usually, my character backgrounds stretch 4+ pages once I finish them. The only ones that end up this short are the backgrounds of my MCs – as so much of their story is told in the actual plot. So this is just the background of what happens to get them to the main plot of the story.

Character Design

I’m not going to lie – character design is actually one of my favorite parts of creating a new story. To actually nail down what my characters look like really brings them alive.

I also find it to be one of the most challenging aspects of character creation – because if I’m not careful, my characters all end up looking the same. Even in my head – I’m not sure why, but sometimes when I describe my characters, they just end up looking the same when I picture them. Which is why I usually take the time to sit down and draw my characters when I’m designing them.

It doesn’t have to be a fancy drawing by any means – just a sketch to give me an idea of what they look like, what they wear, what their expressions are… something tangible.

20190328_120503Sometimes I can sketch my characters right the first time – take this sketch for example. This moody boy came out in one sketch, and I knew immediately that I’d done him justice. From his brooding to the jewelry he wears, to the cigarette he smokes – his personality and his features were perfect.

Now, I don’t always have such luck. Sometimes I fill my notebooks with sketch upon sketch of the same character, unable to quite capture them.

Anymore, I took a good long look at my internal image of the character at that point – because I often find, when I can’t picture my character correctly, it means that I’m not picturing the correct race for the character.

Take for example this guy over here. Forgive my messy sketching – I don’t usually plan to show these to people, but I wanted to use some examples.20190328_113818

I thought sketching someone with blue hair would make him super recognizable, no matter how I drew him. But, to my frustration, I filled up page after page of sketches of him that just weren’t… quite right. I tried different styles of art – more cartoony, less cartoony, anime, and more. Nothing worked.

So finally I complain to my roommate, showing her my sketches of him. And she says, “You know, I always picture him as Asian.”

And there it was – the missing piece. I immediately sketched this – and though the sketch itself is messy, I could tell I’d done him justice this time. Finally.

I have no idea how long it would have taken me to figure that out if I hadn’t disliked my sketches so much – I may have written the entire book without figuring it out. I wouldn’t have liked that at all – especially since the book in question is a romance, which requires a fair amount of character description throughout.

20190328_120526Another good example of this is this character: it took me several rounds of sketching to realize that I wasn’t getting her race right. This one came after the boy above, so I was more aware of it this time. I had an idea that I had her race wrong when I was describing her in the text of the book – I just couldn’t nail down the words. So I returned to my sketchbook. It took me a while to get to this.

You have to understand, it’s not that I didn’t like the other sketches. Take a look at the one below:

20190328_120539 (2)

 

 

That was supposed to be the same character, and I liked the sketch itself a lot. But the way she looked just… wasn’t right.

The point of all of this being, spend time getting to know your characters as you’re designing them. If you’re not an artist, you probably won’t want to sit down and try to draw them. But spend some time describing them through text – I think it can have the same effect. How do you describe them? Does that description sound right? What does their hair look like? Skin tone? Height? Weight? Complexion? Build? What are their favorite clothes to wear?

The more time you spend getting to know your character, the better they’ll turn out. I promise.

And Have Fun!

I know I just gave you a lot of information to process – as well as some new tools and some awkward-looking pictures of my characters. I just want to take a moment to reiterate – no one writes like this if they don’t find it fun. So make sure you have fun! That’s why I spend so much time designing and drawing my characters. I love to do it.

The tricks I use may not work for you. As I said at the beginning of this post – writing is not a one-size-fits-all kind of art. You have to experiment and find out what systems work best for you.

On that note – please share them! I’m always looking for new ways to play with my characters and plots. How do you design your characters? What questions do you ask about them? Do you use character creation sheets? Do you draw your characters? I’d love to hear more about your systems as well, so please leave a comment and share!

So How Are Those Goals Going, Anyway?

Despite the radio silence here on my website, my progress toward my goals this year has actually been quite steady. I told myself that this was my year to really buckle down and do the work – and that’s what I’ve been doing. Keeping my nose to the grindstone, filling my spare time, and trying to also maintain a social life.

I’d be lying if I said it was easy. In many ways, I feel busier than I’ve ever been. I have that feeling I had in college. Whenever I have free time, I feel as if I should be doing something else. Writing. Art. Reading. Working out.

I know that sounds stressful and depressing – but honestly, I actually prefer that kind of feeling as opposed to

Writing

writing

I’ve really been trying to buckle down and write as close to every day as I can. There are some screenshots below of my progress so far. I’m using a tracker called Write Track, which is completely free.

As you can see from my screenshots – I definitely don’t manage to actually sit down and write every day. Since I work on the same laptopeeeeee that I write on, sometimes after I do a full day of work, I just don’t want to sit down at my desk again and write.

Those days, I give myself a bit of a pass. One of the things I’ve been working on teaching myself this year is the art of self-love and self-forgiveness. I miss a day of writing? That’s okay, I can make up some words another day. Miss a day at the gym? It’s all right, it doesn’t mean I’ve given up on fitness. Eat unhealthily? That’s okay, tomorrow you’ll do better. I find that if I give myself some grace and kindness, I’m less likely to quit. Whereas if I’m hard on myself for missing a day, I want to stop almost immediately. Not to mention, it’s just better for my mental health to have a loving edge toward myself, rather than a hard one.

But, anyway! Let’s check on my goal progress.

My overall word count is going well. Though I don’t write every day, I do tend to write more than my daily count when I sit down to write. I usually average around 1,000 words or more a day when I actually write, as you can see from my February word count.

2019-03-24 (1)

Clearly, I had problems writing every day. Well, I should say – I had issues recording my writing every day. Sometimes I just forget to mark where I started writing, or I just forget to update my count. I don’t think that was the case here – I honestly think that the 17th – 24th I just didn’t write. It happens. I don’t lose sleep over it. The point is that I’m still working on developing the habit. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

But let’s take a look at the days that I did write. Almost every day I wrote in February I wrote 2,000+ words in the day. There was one day I wrote over 7,000 words. Those days really help make up for the ones that I don’t get to my laptop. The point of setting my goal of 200,000 words in a year was to learn to do the work. If that means I don’t write every single day, but I still reach the goal in my timeframe, so be it.

So now let’s take a look at my overall word count so far this year:

2019-03-24 (2)

NOTE: This doesn’t include today’s writing since I haven’t updated my count for today yet. Okay, let’s take a look.

As you can see, I’m pretty far ahead of my goal progress. This was my plan. I know I can write a lot in a short period of time, so I buckled down in January and cranked out as many words as I possibly could to get ahead of the game. In the month of January, I wrote 30,949 words (which, fun fact, is my average for each NaNoWriMo except for the time I wrote 90,000 words – that was an outlier and should not be counted).

If you can do math (and you can) you’re probably saying, “But wait a minute there Miss Writes-A-Lot, that means you’ve only written another 30,000 words since January!” You’re right, That’s why I worked so hard in January, because I knew I would start to slow down. (Full disclosure – I wrote this article before the end of April as I was trying to get ahead on my blogging. So who knows how many words I will have actually written by April 1st? Just kidding, I know, its 69,278).

I’m still pretty far ahead of the Expected Progress Bar. For those curious, as of today, March 24th, 2019, in order to reach my goal by December 31st, my expected progress is 43,333 words. I’m trying to still stay ahead of the bar in case I run into any more dry spells.

All in All: Am I Satisfied?

I absolutely am satisfied with my progress. It’s nice to have a measure of just how many words I’ve written this year. I find it motivating to be so far ahead of my goal. I want to see how quickly I can reach my goal, and how much I can surpass it by the end of the year.

I’m still working on building the habits, but I’m doing the work. That’s all I can really ask for.

Health

I feel good about the stride s I’ve made toward prioritizing my health. I got a gym membership at Xperience Fitness which is a cheap-but-good gym near me. I go three times a week in the morning and work out for 30 minutes to an hour those days.

I’ve made some discoveries. I’d made a lot of excuses as to why I couldn’t join a gym before. A lot of them revolved around my asthma – I was embarrassed to work out when I knew I would have an asthma attack. I thought people would judge me for being out of shape when in reality I just couldn’t breathe.

But the more I’ve gone to the gym, the less I’ve had problems with my asthma. I thought it was going to take a lot of doing to get to the point where I could do a set of weights, or run for 30 minutes without having an asthma attack. Turns out I was wrong.

Disclaimer: I’m not saying that people who have asthma are whiners, or that asthma can’t be a legitimate worry when working out. This is purely my experience.

After one week at the gym, I stopped having problems with my asthma. I have no idea what sparked that change, but I’m glad it happened. Now, I can push myself as hard as I need to in the gym without feeling like I’m drowning.

Of course, this doesn’t mean working out is easy for me now. It’s not by any means. But it’s less terrible than it was before.

As far as goals – I don’t actually own a scale. So I don’t know how much weight I’ve lost so far on my health journey. But I also know that I have lost weight. The reason I know? I had to replace all of my pants because they were suddenly too loose. That’s right, I’ve dropped a pants size so far this year.

In the interest of being transparent – which is what I’m trying to do here – I’ll give you a rundown of what I’ve done to achieve my health goal. My roommate and I attempted Whole30 and stopped after 17 days, when she realized that a health condition of hers was being aggravated by the restrictive diet. I could have continued on my own, but quite honestly – I didn’t want to. I am very much a foodie, and while I did find some recipes that were tasty, most I found to be bland and boring. Because they were bland, I didn’t want to eat, and then I got grouchy and tired because I wasn’t eating enough.

That’s all to say, I’ve figured out how to adjust my diet to be more healthy. Have I been doing it well since I stopped Whole30? No, but I’m going to start again. I’m cutting back on sugary foods – soda, coffee, sweets – and eating out less. This is partially for my health and partially for my wallet.

All in All: Am I Satisfied?

Absolutely. I’m proud of myself for the progress I’ve made. It may not be perfect, but I’m still working hard and I think I can give myself credit for it. I’m still developing all the habits – there are occasionally still mornings where I choose to sleep instead of work out. But those will come with time an dedication.

I also intend to buy a scale soon so I can actually find out how much I’ve lost.

Books

All right, admission:

I haven’t finished a book yet this year. It’s now April, I should be starting my fourth book in-keeping with my goal. And I haven’t. Finished. One.

I also figured out why I didn’t finish any books last year, either. I read a LOT of my own writing.

Does that sound vain? Probably. But I’ve been writing for 13 years. I have quite a library built up. I read my own work for inspiration, reflection, and editorial purposes. I also read because… well, no one knows my tastes like I do.

So I’ve read thousands of words this year. It’s just that I haven’t read much that I haven’t written myself (and articles online, of course).

All and All: Am I Satisfied?

No, not really… I don’t really know what to change when it comes to my reading habits. I always intend to sit down and read but in reality, I have so many other things to do, I just forget. And then suddenly it’s April and I should have read 3 whole books and I haven’t read any.

I don’t really have a plan for what to do to achieve my goal… I’ll keep you guys updated if I come up with a plan. I’m just going to try to read some short books to catch up whenever I have the time (which is never).

Coming Soon!

Good news for those of you who actually enjoy reading my blog. There’s more coming!

Newsletter

That’s right, I’m hoping to roll out a newsletter in the next several months! You can look to find updates on my story, personal anecdotes, pictures, hints, and hacks. This will still be a little while coming as I want to get into the habit of regularly publishing articles before I roll it out. Still, I’m excited to share more of my life with you all!

New Series!

I’ve brainstormed enough blog topics to publish one article a week for the rest of this year. Actually, well into next year as well.

I took away my best excuse. “I don’t have any ideas for blog posts!” Not anymore. I have over 50 blog ideas, with titles and details, written in a spreadsheet. I have publishing dates assigned, and several series planned. Here’s a sneak peek!

Adulting is Hard: a crash course on how to be a real adult from one who learned the hard way. I’ll be talking about budgeting when you have no money, how to grocery shop on a tight budget, what to do when your car breaks down for the first time, keeping your place clean, how to find your first apartment, tips on living with roommates, a simple checklist of essential furniture and household supplies for your first home, the best way to do laundry, and learning how to be healthy when you’re broke.

Creating a Story: I figured if you’re always told to “write what you know,” then I’d better start writing about what I know best: writing! This series will touch on the basics of developing a good story. How to design a compelling character, creating character development, finding a good antagonist and conflict for your story, designing a full plot arc, then, finally, actually sitting down to write the story. And, of course, the all-important editing.

Writing Fantasy: There’s a lot that goes into creating a compelling fantasy world that people don’t really think about. In this series I’m going to touch on building a believable fantasy world, creating new fantasy races and their rules, dealing with creatures and magic, as well as the basics of language and spells.

Misc. Lifestyle and Religion: The rest of my planned posts for this year are mostly miscellaneous, and branch across several topics, but I still think they’re going to be fun to write, and hopefully fun to read. Here are SOME of the posts I have planned:

  • What Queer Eye has Taught me About Self Care and Confidence
  • I Walked Away From Christianity for Two Years. Here’s Why I Came Back
  • Brainstorming Tips and Tricks From Your Local Creative Mind
  • Why Christian Lonely-Shame, and Why We Should Stop
  • What Happened When I Konmari’d All My Belongings

Those are the first series I have planned! I’m excited to get started. I feel like I finally know what I want to say and how to say it, so now I just have to sit down and do the work. And that’s what this year is all about, anyway!

Leave a comment down below with what series or post you’re most excited to read! I’d love to hear from you!