Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Prepping for NaNoWriMo–start with character…oh and food.

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 26•18

It’s raining here, but we’ve had the most glorious spate of Indian Summer weather and the amber, lemon, and copper colors continue to bejewel the trees. I’m cleaning up the yard, moving plants, and planting bulbs. And hallelujah, I’m back to cooking hearty food–soups, stews, and a big batch of Beef Bourguignon and mashed potatoes that made me happy to be alive though I still haven’t stepped on the scale.

With November fast approaching thousands of writers are prepping for NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. It’s a mad sprint, penning 50,000 words of a story at a frenzied speed while part of a writing community.

If you’re wise you’re already making plans for this mighty effort. I recommend a deep house or apartment cleaning and stocking the pantry and freezer. Stock plenty of protein-rich dishes ready for the days ahead. The kind you can simply thaw or nuke.  What else keeps you going? Perhaps chocolate, apples, snacks, coffee, tea, bottled water, and rewards like  decent wine for milestones achieved.

Buckle Up

But with the last weekend in October here, I also recommend that you get acquainted with your protagonist before you plunge into writing a new novel. It’s simple really; if you get acquainted with him or her beforehand, the story will unspool with more ease and speed. Because what the protagonist wants/desires and fears the most (the dreaded alternative) will be at stake in the story.

Now, it’s likely that the protagonist’s needs and goals will shift and grow throughout the story, but you need a starting point of need and imbalance. If you begin with basic dynamics of storytelling now, then by the time the conflict heats up and things are really hairy, you’ll understand your protag’s reactions and next steps.

In fiction needs and motivations create goals. The protagonist’s goals will meet with opposition from the antagonist or another force. The protagonist will struggle to overcome the obstacles. These struggles create conflict and conflict fuels the whole shebang.

Goals matter. They define fictional characters from Woody from Toy Story to Dorothy Gale to Atticus Finch.

Goals are tied to dramatic structure and prevent your characters from being merely reactive.

Fictional characters don’t give up even though goals are hard to achieve.

Goals provide action, drive stories.

Katniss Everdeen: Her path to greatness began the day of the Reaping when she steps in to save/protect her sister Primrose  from taking part in the annual and deadly Hunger Games. Leaving home with Peeta, the other Tribute from District 12,  she plans to somehow stay alive because if she dies her mother and sister will not be able to survive without her. Along the way, she trains, forms an alliance with Peeta,  collects allies and enemies, and ultimately fights to protect Peeta’s life too. By story’s end their examples show how remaining true to your principles is most important of all.

Hazel Lancaster in The Fault in our Stars: Teenaged Hazel has been dealt a lousy hand, thyroid cancer that has metastasized into lung cancer. Her first goal, to please her mother, is accomplished when she attends a support group for kids with cancer. At this meeting she makes friends with Augustus Waters who becomes her first love. She introduces Augustus to her favorite novel about a girl with terminal cancer and explains she wants to meet the author and understand what really happened to his family. You see, the motivation that drives Hazel is that she needs to believe her parents will be okay after she dies. (spoiler alert)  Along the way Hazel and Augustus travel to Amsterdam and meet the author, lose their virginity, and Hazel realizes how much she wants to live. But Augustus has been hiding a horrible truth: his cancer has returned and he has little time left.  Quite a plot twist, isn’t it? Now Hazel needs to somehow support him, cherish their last days together, then handle her grief all the while coping with her own terminal diagnosis. She comes to understand what being a survivor means and that life has meaning no matter what stage you’re at. And she comes to feel more peace about her parents, especially after she learns her mother has been getting a degree is social work.

Luke Skywalker: Skywalker is a freedom fighter from humble beginnings.  His path (and character arc) begins with a restless need to escape his dead-end existence on his uncle’s barren farm. He learns that Princess Leia is leading a rebellion against the Empire and wants to join. He longs to become a Jedi Knight, or fighter pilot especially after Obi-Wan Ben Kanobi, a desert hermit,  informs him that his father was a Jedi fighter and he has the ability to harness the Force. Still reluctant to leave his family, his mind is made up for him when Imperial stormtroopers savagely murder his aunt and uncle. He’s all in now. Skywalker begins training with Hans Solo, then learns the princess has been captured. His next goal is to rescue the princess, which he accomplishes with more than a few swashbuckling moves. This sets up his final, seemingly hopeless goal of taking out the Death Star and ultimately saving the Rebel alliance.

Notice how the protagonists’ goals powered the story?

Getting to know you….

So how are you going to get acquainted with your protagonist? There are lots of questionnaires available online to create a physical presence and backstory. I’ve got one here amid my cheat sheets.

But it seems to me that walking along or imagining characters as  if they’re with you, their creator,  can be one of these best methods of getting to know someone. Especially if you want to learn what makes them tick. Or in fiction speak, their motivations.   Motivations stem from a character’s past, basic nature and personality, and compelling circumstances.

Let’s repeat: Motivations create needs which create goals which fuel conflict = story.

Just try it. Step outdoors and plan to walk for at least a mile with your invisible pal at your side. What would your character notice or remark on? How does he/she hold his/her body? Fast walker? Ambler? Quiet? Hates exercise? Feels most alive when moving? What’s on his or her mind? Distracted? Preoccupied? Impatient?

You know those moments in life when you’re walking along with a friend and a profound truth slips into the conversation? Maybe it’s a tidbit or a bombshell or sharing a long-ago memory. We all have wounds and they’re often twined to a character’s internal goals and secrets.  Those are the moments, the gold you’re searching for.

And although time is short with November looming, how about a short road trip with your character riding shotgun? Or can he or she tag along when you’re running errands or chauffering the kids?  Have you ever noticed how some people are a delight to travel with and some people are a nightmare? Which one is your protagonist? A nervous, watchful traveler? Open to adventure? Afraid of the unknown? Chatty? Reticent?

Shaping your protagonist’s goals

What’s wrong or not working in his/her current situation?

What about emotional needs from the past? In other words, what’s screwing up  your character?

What first, clear-cut action step can the protagonist take toward his/her goal? Remember, a protagonist’s goals work best if they’re relatable, visible, and barely achievable. Side note: some of a character’s goals will remain ‘invisible’ since they’re inner, emotional, personal growth goals.

What is the impetus to push your protagonist toward that goal? The inciting incident such as Prim begin chosen to participate in the Hunger Games? The first plot point when Hazel meets Augustus at the support group?

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

And thanks for stopping by




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