I published an earlier version of this article, “The Little People Matter Too!”, way back in 2014, but since it only has 15 total views, I’ve decided to revisit it and update it a bit. This was among my first “Creativity Sessions” pieces, and I think its themes still ring true as I begin exploring a new story this November. I wil post more of these re-hashes through NaNo 2016 (and likely beyond) with some new insights and thoughts to share.
As I discussed last Friday, I have entered NaNoWriMo 2016 with a much more solid foundation to begin a new novel. While WoE: Memento was largely experimental, with ideas and narrative points coming to me as I wrote, I have been much more structured in my approach to the follow-up novel, The Warden of Everfeld: Legacy.
With WoEM, I knew who my two protagonists were, but I had only a vague understanding of their central conflict from scattered sections I had written over the preceding years. For WoEL, I decided who my three protagonists would be and plotted each of their narratives before writing a single word of the story. I knew that I would need a strong supporting cast in order to make the three protagonists’ stories feel bigger and deeper, but I was counting on discovering those supporting characters as I went.
The Little People Still Matter!
Just 5,000 words into WoEL (I know, I’m way behind!), I have already designed and given backstories to a handful of supporting characters who may or may not develop larger roles as the story progresses. I honestly have no idea — that’s what makes the discovery draft so much fun!
One recurring challenge with developing these characters has been detailing their names, faces, and attributes. I like to give my reader a clear picture of who they are encountering, so I think writing the physical attributes and bearing of each character entering a scene is important from the outset. But how do you know how a certain character should look?
For my story, a character’s look often comes down to where they are from. Sometimes, I make this up on the spot and go from there, but some characters necessarily have to fit within a particular sociocultural context for their place in the story to be clear. Then, the question becomes, how can I make that character’s sociocultural context feel real, and not just a fit of whimsical ideas I threw together?
For instance, how do two soldiers dress as they are escorting a dignitary of their society around the city? Do they wear armor or weapons? Do they maintain similar styles of hair, as in a more regimented, militarized society, or would they wear mismatched clothing and jewelry, as if they were buccaneers?
And what about that dignitary? What garments distinguish them from a craftsman or tradesman? Is the dignitary better educated than everyone else? Do they know that they are better educated? How does this color their perceptions of others they may encounter?
Two years ago, when I first realized how difficult (and exciting) it can be to develop these tertiary characters, I asked one simple question: Why do these people matter to the overall story, and do they even have to?
With two years of outlining, drafting, reading, re-writing, and starting anew under my belt, the answer remains clear: Absolutely, unequivocally, yes!
So my first-ever lesson from NaNoWriMo still holds true: The little people still matter. Developing these characters with intricate back-stoies will allow for exposition that can deepen and broaden the central story, and give meaning to the lives and ambitions of the protagonists. If these people are given real life, then the stakes for the larger story are bigger.
Developing Characters More Efficiently
A bit of experience has also made the process of developing my characters a little easier. My first draft of WoEM was messy, with characters popping up at random who I was not certain were actually necessary. Now, in drafting and outlining WoEL as I go, I’m much more organized. I’ve developed an efficient way to track my characters in a handy spreadsheet:
I already have five Point-of-View (POV) characters outlined in this way with three or four more to come. This sheet provides an easy reference to the characters’ basics, and I may even add a column for their physical description and dress.
The log-line is vital here: I believe it should be clear to you, the reader, and the character why they are doing what they’re doing in the story and what stands in their way. Each POV character’s sections should be written as if they were a single, contiguous story. This a lesson hard-learned during my read-through of WoEM, and now I need to revise those arcs to make them consistent.
I won’t make the same mistake with WoEL. I may not have the entire story plotted out in all of its minute details, but at least I know the challenges that each of my POV characters will face as they move through their indivdual arcs.
If you think about each POV character as a separate room of one house, each room will have its own purpose, uses, and design, but they still need to fit together in order to have a completed house. Thus, I can design my characters individually and logically as I construct the larger story around them. Otherwise, you would end up with a house with upsidedown staircases and doors to nowhere.
How is NaNo going for everyone? We’re already one week down!