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Nov 7, 2012

NaNoWriMo Tip #7: Three Things You Need To Know About Your Characters

You don't need to tell us he has eyes; if he has no eyes, tell us.

These are my personal tips for NaNoWriMo. You know the drill. Take only what works.

When you think about characters, you’ll want to juggle a couple purposes for them. First, characters should be interesting people we can relate to on some level. They will need biographies. Second, the characters need to compliment each other, behave like individuals, with independent motives, so they will need to have different personalities from each other. Third, the characters must conflict with each other to drive the plot, so they need different roles in the story.


A lot of character prompt sheets have millions of things do decide about your character. What was his elementary school? What’s his favorite ice cream?  These questions might be totally relevant to you. Or not.

When I’m working on characters for my Unfinished Song series, which is a second world epic fantasy with Neolithic-era tech (bows and arrows, spears, clay bowls), knowing my character’s elementary school or taste in ice cream is wildly irrelevant. What I do need to know is the character’s clan (extended family), tribe, whether s/he has magic or not, and if so whether it’s Imorvae or Morvae.

In other words, figure out what categories are relevant for your book, and answer those questions about your characters. However, if you need some nudging, these things are relevant in most stories, once you adjust it to suit your context:

Body Type/Appearance
Power / Political Affiliation


If you aren’t careful, all your characters will have the same personality, quirks and voice: yours. As a reminder to myself to make my characters different (from each other and from me), I like to cheat by consulting those Personality Assessment Tests, and casting my characters as different types.

Questions to consider are: Extrovert or Introvert? Thrill-seeking or safety-seeking? Lusty or shy? Charming or dorky? Brilliant or bumbling? Optimistic or pessimistic? Suspicious or trusting? Grumpy or playful? Busy or bored? Jaded or naïve? Thoughtful or careless?

Most characters will be a mix, but be careful not to make them all the same mix. The more realistic and character-based your novel, the more nuanced they will be. The more action driven or comedic your novel, the more you can make your characters extreme types to incite drama or provoke laughter.

Sometimes you’ll also find articles like this which can inspire you.


The role the character plays in your story is critical. The roles your story needs may be where you start creating your characters, or you may have some characters in mind and then need to figure out how many story roles they can play.

Here are some potential roles:

Hero (Protagonist)

Amazingly, some writers forget to decide who the hero of their story is. Who’s story is it really? Who grows and changes? Who drives the action? If you have a truly ensemble piece, it’s going to be tricky.

Villain (Antagonist)

It’s really, really hard to write a compelling story without someone in this role. I’ve tried repeatedly. If the antagonist is not a person it has to be a force with almost personlike intentionality, like the white whale in Moby Dick.


The hero is usually the main PoV or narrator (in either third or first person), but not always. The first time I ever encountered this was in The Illyrian Adventure by Lloyd Alexander, which is an excellent example of the technique

The other classic example is Sherlock Holmes, narrated by Watson. (The new BBC series makes Watson a true mirror hero, which I love.)

Mirror Hero 

Sometimes there is another character who is like a strange mirror of the main hero. For instance, if the hero is a young boy coming-of-age, the mirror hero may be an older man facing his last big struggle, his coming-of-middle-age.


The love interest might be a minor character or a mirror hero in his or her own right. My Unfinished Song series has the main hero (Dindi) and the mirror hero (Kavio), the romance.


Obi Wan, Yoda, Mr. Miyagi, Dumbledore. Sometimes the mentor is a full teacher, sometimes only a gatekeeper, or the one who issues the call to adventure. For instance, Cinderalla’s fairygodmother doesn’t teach her martial arts (too bad), or even magic (who not?), yet she obviously plays a critical role in the story.

1 comment:

Ink in the Book said...

I believe the biggest problem I have with character development is the personality sounding like me! I use character sheets to help me keep them in their own attitudes and character.