November and NaNoWriMo approaches. On November 1st thousands of authors will begin the 30 day challenge. Many will fall out of the game in first few days, but an amazing number of authors will finish their novels in those 30 days.
I see on the boards at www.nanowrimo.org that a large number of people are drawing up personnel files for their characters. They are finding pictures of actors that might look most like their characters and writing short bios. I have done this in the past, and it worked well, as far as getting the obvious things down.
But I discovered that personnel files only show us the surface of these characters. Thanks to my obsession with learning new things and going to seminars, I do things a bit differently nowadays.
A seminar by Damon Suede triggered a cascade of ideas in my mind, the things I habitually did but didn’t realize I was doing it. These aspects of characterization were in my head but never written down, and as a consequence, things sometimes got muddied up in the writing.
We form our characters out of Action and Reaction. This happens in several ways. I will use the 3 main characters in my forthcoming novel, Julian Lackland, as my examples, as they are most firmly in my mind right now.
First, we make a simple word picture of each character. The word picture is made of a verb (action) and a noun (person, place, or thing), the two words that best describe each person.
We want to know the good things about these characters, so we assign nouns that tell us how they see themselves at the outset of the story. We also look at sub-nouns and synonyms:
Julian’s Noun is: Chivalry (Gallantry, Bravery, Daring, Courtliness, Valor, Love)
Beau’s Noun is: Bravery (Courage, Loyalty, Daring, Gallantry, Passion)
Lady Mags’s Noun is: Audacity (Daring, Courage)
The way we see ourselves is the face we present to the world. These self-conceptions color how they react but aren’t engraved in stone. By the end of the story, the way they see themselves will change because circumstances will both break and remake them.
Next, we assign a verb that describes their gut reactions, which will guide the way they react to every situation that arises. They might think one thing about themselves, but this verb is the truth and while it may evolve, it does not completely change. Again, we also look at sub-verbs and synonyms:
Julian has 2 Verbs. They are: Defend, Fight, (Preserve, Uphold, Protect)
Beau’s 2 Verbs are: Protect, Fight (Defend, Shield, Combat, Dare)
Lady Mags’s 2 Verbs are : Fight, Defy (Compete, Combat, Resist)
When I write one of these three characters, I know how they believe they will react in a given situation. Why? Because I have drawn the portrait of their soul in words:
Julian must Fight for and Defend Chivalry. Julian’s commitment to defending innocents against inhumanity ultimately breaks his mind.
Beau must Fight for and Protect Bravery. Beau’s commitment to protecting Julian and concealing his madness consumes his life.
Lady Mags must Fight for and Defy Audacity. Mags is audacious–she is determined to remain a mercenary knight, no matter what the cost. She’s at war with herself in regard to her desire for a life with Julian and Beau. That war ruins her chance at happiness.
Do you see what happened? Placing the verb before the noun describes their core conflict. It lays bare their flaws and opens the way to building new strengths.
Who they are before we meet them is important, so go ahead and make that personnel file. But their story will be built upon who they think they are and what their gut reactions are.
Our characters’ preconceptions color their experience of events, which color the readers’ view. They are unreliable witnesses. It shades their reactions when they fail to live up to their own standards. These are the watershed moments when they must honestly examine their motives.
It adds to a scene where they triumph despite their flaws, succeeding against the odds.
What two words describe the primary weaknesses of your characters, the thing that could be their ultimate ruin?
Julian Lackland: Obsession and Honor
Beau Baker: Steadfast Loyalty
Lady Mags De Leon: Stubbornness and Fear
So, when you sit down to make a personnel file for your characters, you need more than a picture of your favorite actor and bio. You also need to decide the verb (action word) and the noun (object of the action) that best represents your characters.
For me, knowing these two words about my characters make writing the story easier. Their actions and reactions unfold as if the story writes itself.
I am in the process of assigning verbs and nouns to the characters in my own projected NaNoWriMo novel. Some of my characters are difficult to get a grip on, so this exercise will help me on November 1st when I begin to write their story.