NaNoWriMo Prep: Creating Complex Characters

Characters are the life blood of any story. Most readers will tell you that they’ll forgive a few plot holes and less than amazing world building if you give them characters that just leap off the page and into their heart. So creating complex, compelling characters is kind of critical. No pressure, right?

As a reminder, the schedule for NaNoWriMo prep is as follows:

  1. Develop a Story Idea (September 12-18) — Click Here to Read Last Week’s Post
  2. Create Complex Characters (September 19-25) <— You Are Here
  3. Construct a Detailed Plot or Outline (September 26 – October 2)
  4. Build a Strong World (October 3-7)
  5. Organize Your Life for Writing! (October 10-16)
  6. Find and Manage Your Time (October 18-24)

Now, let’s talk about characters.

When I first started writing, world-building and plot seemed to come much easier to me than characters. I felt like character was my weak spot. So, I searched out the people who do character best — romance writers — and started learning.

The way I see it, romance books are all about the characters. The plot and the world are really secondary. If the reader doesn’t love the characters, they are not going to care how cool the small town is, or how fantastic the magic is, or how bizarre the aliens are. And the reader is not going to care if those characters achieve any of their goals, let alone their happily ever after.

This is why I decided that if anyone could teach me the secret to creating compelling characters, it would be romance writers. As an added bonus, I found out that the romance community is generally a pretty welcoming bunch of folks who are happy to share their knowledge with newbies, even (or especially) ones who don’t have a degree in English literature.

I started attending romance writing conferences and workshops. I entered contests, and eventually I joined a local romance writer group. I took notes, collected character building templates, and basically absorbed as much as I possibly could about how to write compelling characters.

Luckily for me, it turned out that the secret was NOT in creating that basic character bio stat sheet. I am terrible at keeping track of (or even sometimes describing) things like my characters’ eye color and hair color and favorite food, etc.

The secret is that a main character has to want something. The romance writers taught me about GMC (Goal, Motivation, and Conflict). Specifically, what does the character want? Why do they want it? And what’s standing in their way?

My favorite example from these character workshops is Disney. Think about your favorite Disney princess film. (Tangled. It’s Tangled, right? That’s the correct answer.) Did you ever notice that every Disney princess has an “I Want” song? They’ve got a dream.

Vladimir from Tangled makes his little ceramic unicorns kiss
Even though I love Tangled, this concept is probably best illustrated by The Little Mermaid and her song about wanting to be where the people are

But there’s more to GMC than having a dream. Just when I thought I had this nailed, the workshop instructors threw in an essential curve ball. It’s not only about the character’s external GMC. There’s also an internal need or flaw that needs to be reckoned with before the character can achieve their goal. This can be conscious or unconscious. Some people describe it as the “lie the character tells themselves” or their misbelief about the world (or themselves).

It’s been a while, so I can’t remember which one of those many romance writing workshops this came from, but after learning about GMC, I started filling in a grid like this for each of the main characters in my novel:

External story goal:
Why now?
External obstacles:
Internal need:
What holds the character back?

That helped a lot, but I still hadn’t quite made the connection between characters and plot. That didn’t happen until I read Story Genius by Lisa Cron. After reading Story Genius, a whole bunch of puzzle pieces about story craft just sort of clicked into place in my head. I think the thing that did it was this idea of “the third rail” in the story. It’s sort of the “why do we care” aspect of story. It forces you to think about why what’s happening on the page (the plot) matters to the character. Everything that happens gets tied back to the characters’ internal and external conflict.

L. Penelope has a downloadable Story Genius scene card template on her website, which is what I use, but I’ll talk more about that next week in my post about plot. If you struggle with character, and you have time to read one craft book before NaNoWriMo starts, I highly recommend checking out Story Genius and implementing scene cards in your NaNo prep.

Back to character creation, even though I usually start by free writing and brainstorming in a notebook, once things start to come together I create a character sheet in Scrivener for each of the main characters in my book. However, I usually end up deleting the pre-populated prompts on Scrivener’s character bio sheets. I start my character bios by copying over any relevant notes from my notebook. Then I add my GMC grid at the top of the sheet. I also write down any other important details that I need to remember as I’m writing (ex: things I’ve said about that character in previous books that is now cannon and should not be contradicted).

Last, but certainly not least, comes the fun part. Because I struggle with character descriptions, I like to find photos of celebrities who look similar enough to how I picture the character in my head that they can stand in as an avatar. Then I add a few photos to my character sheet. That process takes a lot longer than you might expect because I don’t pay that much attention to celebrities. So I struggle to remember the names of actors and actresses or other performers. That makes coming up with search terms difficult. If you’re a pro at coming up with images for your characters, please tell me your tips and tricks!

Similarly, if you’ve learned something creating compelling characters that you want to share, let me know in the comments. I’m always looking to learn new things. As an example, I’m currently reading about a concept called “universal fantasies” and how that relates to both plot and character. I’m still learning, but maybe I’ll talk more about that in next week’s post.