I’ve used that title for so many things over the years, and I’m never going to get tired of it. The origin is a Kurt Vonnegut story by the same name, about a man with little personality of his own but when he’s given a part in a play, he becomes utterly immersed into the character from beginning of rehearsal until closing night. It’s how I’ve described my style of adapting to jobs; I walk in and determine who I’m supposed to be…and then play the part. Morning person? I am absolutely not, but if you need me to be, I will be smiling and happy at six a.m. for you.
So when people ask me, “Hey Rion, which comes first? The plot or the character?” the answer for me is simple.
There is no story, if there is no one to carry it forward.
I may be biased in this one, since character has always been my main focus. I’ve probably said it so many times that you already knew that this post was going to be about character. “What else would you talk about, Rion? All you ever babble about is character!”
…*coughs* Well, that may be true. But if we’re talking about how to plan for NaNoWriMo, I’ll walk you through the same way I did that first group from my college.
In all seriousness, there is a strong debate over which comes first, the plot or the character. Neither way is “right” or “wrong,” again much like pantsing versus plotting, it’s up to what works best for you. If you feel the plot comes first, no worries; I’m writing that one next week. Feel free to wait until next Monday, read that one, and then come back here. I promise, you won’t hurt my feelings, and I’ll stay right here until you come back.
As for the rest of us, let’s talk character. When I was first starting out back in 2009 when I was running the NaNoWriMo group on the campus of my college, we started out with a basic old-school character profile quiz, essentially. You’ve likely seen them: name, age, height/weight, hair color, eye color, likes, dislikes, blah blah blah. Pick sun or moon, gold or silver, etc. They were all over the place, especially back then. I sat down and said “okay Rion, let’s make a new character. What’s the name.” I’ve got way too many names in my head. I’m a veritable baby names book. So I pull out the name of an old acquaintance whose name I’ve always liked: Alistair. Awesome. Now I have a character named Alistair.
I’m very much of the mind that names can shape the person. If you get a character named Alistair, you may visualize something totally different than if I called them George or Ezekiel or Jimmy. Alternately, even Alasdair can bring a different feeling that Alistair.
So while it sounds a lot like I just took a name off the top of my head and just threw it at the page, it’s not entirely true–and it’s definitely not true that I do that for every character. Again, take my fellow author Lyn Thorne-Alder’s serial Addergoole. Names have a very strong meaning in her fae world, and since I’ve played around enough in it, I’ve learned to watch names. I have a character named Aden, which means “little fire.” Guess what kind of personality Aden has? If you said sharp as a whip fire-cracker kind of energy, you are absolutely right. Fun story about Alistair? When I was writing him–several edits into the book at this point–I decided to look up what the name Alistair meant, just for fun and games. Turns out that Alistair is a derivative of Alexander, which means “defender of mankind.” Given that Alistair’s whole book is about him saving his people from destruction…it’s apt. And I didn’t even do it intentionally. My one cool moment.
Last names I’ll admit I’m a little less creative with. I’m apt to find a census listing of surnames, scroll down toward the bottom, and pick an interesting sounding surname that matches the first name I’ve picked. This is an important bit for me. If I don’t like the way the two names go together, I won’t be able to see the character as well. Again, using AC as an example: Alistair’s last name used to be Christian. It was an amusing thing, naming a vampire “Christian,” and it stayed that way for a while. But as the drafts went on, and he drifted further and further away from the initial concept, “Christian” didn’t fit him anymore. I needed a new one. I’m not entirely sure where Clarimond came from–other than possibly off the top of my head–but it fit him infinitely more, and his name has remained Clarimond to this day.
Looking at another character from that novel: Bantam Molloy. I genuinely thought I had come up with Bantam’s name off the top of my head. Didn’t think it was a real name, just some letters I put together, and ones that I mistyped into Batman more times than I care to admit. It wasn’t until someone asked me in my editing process if I’d intentionally named him after the bantam rooster that I sat back and wondered. Of course, looking up bantam roosters, what did I find? The fact that they were traditionally used in fighting back in the day, and were miniature versions of their full-sized counterparts. Add that name to my five-foot-nothing, short-man-syndrome scrappy Irish fighter, and suddenly I had a very well named character…again, completely unintentionally. (Molloy isn’t anything fun; I asked an Irish friend for some Irish surnames, and I liked that one the best. Ah well.)
So, for the purposes of our exercise here, I’m going to create a character named Dana Cantrell. Dana, because I’d like it to be a unisex name. I’m not sure if my main character here is going to be a guy or a girl yet, and Dana allows me to make that decision later, as it becomes apparent through my writing. (Yes, I can use any name here, and if George decides that she’s much happier as a Lisa, then I can find-and-replace “George” with “Lisa” and be fine, but come on now. We’re talking about NaNoWriMo here. Who has time for that?) Cantrell is for a few reasons: it’s a name I found on a census site that thought sounded good with Dana, and it’s the last name of a couple of friends of mine on Twitter. (Both in the sense that there are two of them, and they are actually a couple…like they’re married to each other.)
Dana Cantrell has long-ish hair, probably down to their chin. Again, nicely ambiguous. It’s a bit curly, probably brown. Maybe a lighter brown. They’ll have grey eyes, because I”m selfish and never see characters with my own eye color and since this is my story, I can do whatever I’d like. They’ll stand about…hm. I have a tendency to lean toward taller characters for my men, and shorter for my women, so this may be a divisive point. For now I’ll go tall–because it’s not a deal breaker. Women are tall too. (Just look at one of my bosses from the costume department at college.) Dana’s about six feet tall, and slender. They’ve done a lot of work with their hands; maybe a mechanic of some sort. (I now have a distant image of Winry from Full Metal Alchemist in my head, except a very tall version of Winry. Hah!)
The physical attributes of a character are an interesting thing to come up with, because they’re difficult to properly introduce within the context of a story. I still think it’s important to know, just so that you can come up with appropriate body language. Alistair’s hair is longer in front than it is in back, and as a nervous habit, he runs his hands through his hair to push it back from his face. This wouldn’t work for another character of mine–Devin–because Devin’s hair is significantly longer. While Dev may push their hair back, it’s usually with both hands, and they pull it into a ponytail and brush it over a shoulder, since it’s down to about their waist. On the other other hand, my character Caine has a military-standard hair cut; he doesn’t pay much attention to his hair, since there’s not a lot there. He can’t have the same motions as AC and Devin. One of the things that drives me the most bonkers about stories is the inevitable mirror scene. The character is getting ready to go somewhere, or is preparing for a big event, or something akin to that, and they investigate themselves in the mirror. “My raven black hair was sitting perfectly above my shoulders, not a strand out of place. I tried to hide the red circling my bright blue eyes, but I knew no amount of cool water could make the tears less obvious. My clothing fit well enough over my slim figure, though the clothes had been from last winter and so were a little tighter than I liked.” <– You know what I mean. You’ve seen it before. You’ve probably used it before. This isn’t a deal-breaker, it’s just overused. The one book I’ve seen this in lately where it worked “well” was in Divergent. Since Tris was a member of Abnegation, mirrors aren’t something she’s allowed to indulge in, save for the one time she gets her hair cut–and even then, it’s only a glance. When she’s presented with a proper mirror, we get a good description–because Tris isn’t used to seeing herself. Again, if something dramatic has changed, then sure, write a description. “Coming out of the fire, Joey’s hair felt a few inches shorter, making the wind against the back of his neck all the more obvious.” Without being heavy-handed about it, we’ve just established that Joey’s hair was probably down at least to his collar before the fire, and now is closer to his skull.
The exception to this is if a character’s physical trait has something to do directly with the plot. For example, in Lyn Thorne-Alder’s Tír na Cali setting, characters (particularly women) with grey eyes are almost (if not completely) exclusively nobility. So when Selena shows up as a captured person in their world, and admits that she needs to take out her contacts–and suddenly has grey eyes, it makes everyone around her on edge. Is she originally from Cali? Grey eyes aren’t common in this universe. It becomes a major plot point–and as such, it’s important for us to know that she has grey eyes. You see the point here.
So now we know what Dana (coming back to them) looks like to an extent, and we know a little about the type of person they likely were. Mechanic shows a level of linear logic, of physical labor, of focus. Blue-collar job, not afraid to get their hands dirty. (This character’s starting to lean hard male. I’m not giving up yet.) For the moment, this may be all we need. Yes, we can get more specific. If you want, here are the steps one of my all-time favorite writing mentors ever gave me:
- Occupation: what do they do for a living?
- Avocation: what do they do for fun? What’s their hobby?
- Family: Who do they have around them, blood or otherwise?
- Sex: Do they like it or don’t they? What turns them on, or turns them off?
- Humor: What do they think is funny? What do they dislike?
- The secret: Everyone has a secret, the one thing no one else knows. What’s your character’s?
So for Dana: they’re a mechanic. Their hobbies are running and drawing. For family, they have a sister, a mother, and a father. They also have a significant other who’s bordering on fiance(e) status. They’re turned on by long hair, good smiles, smart brains. Black-and-white thinking is an absolute turn-off. They’ve got a pretty dry sense of humor, and it’s often self-deprecating. The secret? This is the hardest part, and if you can’t come up with it right now, it’s okay. (I’m writing this pretty late at night and Dana’s not talking to me, as it were, so I’m drawing a blank. That’s fine. We’ll come back to it.)
What about you? Take those questions, take my suggestions, take anything you can get. Give me a character, any character, random character and let me know who they are in the comments. Doesn’t have to be for your NaNo novel, but it could be! You never know who you might need…