Creating characters – the pantser way

I know I am not fully in control of a story, but I usually have some idea where I want to go with it. Then, I introduce characters and they take over, sometimes taking the story in a completely different direction than I had planned. I am now, and will forever be, a pantser (you can read about pantsers and plotters here). That’s not gonna change any time soon, so I have learned to just live with it. Besides, I get to be as surprised as everyone else by what comes out of my pen.

Most of the time, it works. Other times, I read back over something I’ve just written, and know right away it won’t work. That’s why the delete key was invented. I delete everything that doesn’t work, have a stern talk with my main character, who just went heaven knows where, and we try again. Remember, even your main character can go off on a nonsensical tangent that has nothing to do with your novel, or slows it down or … you know, turns it into a disaster.

When it happens, do not panic. It’s not the end of the world, and it’s not the end of your novel. It’s nothing that can’t be fixed. Characters sometimes enjoy hogging the scenes, and you can always go back later and delete the unimportant stuff, or if it’s clear this new direction your main character is taking will derail your novel completely, go back immediately and delete it.

This works even for pantsers. We can generally just feel when a story isn’t going in the right direction. It’s part instinct and part experience. When I know a scene won’t work, when I know it will change the story so drastically that I won’t be able to recover it, I delete it right away, take a short break, then return to the story.

But, you may ask, what about character development, and arc and all that literary stuff that always gets hammered into our heads? I don’t know about other writers, but when I try to force development, growth, arc and what not else, it doesn’t work. My characters come out forced, fake and one-dimensional. Just like real life, I get to know my characters one page at a time, they reveal themselves, their personalities, their pasts, their interests, hobbies, and secrets to me bit by bit, and by the end of the novel, it’s all there. It comes naturally to most of us. If you’re really inside the head of your character, you won’t need to fret about this stuff while you’re drafting, it will all come out by itself.

That said, there are a few things you need to know before you start writing, and that’s a fairly good idea of your character’s back story, and what they look like. Again, you may ask, if I have no control, and know very little about my main characters, how do I know anything about them before I start? The answer is that when I get a new story idea, I don’t start writing right away. When a character shows up to “tell” me his or her story, I usually give it a few days before I sit down to write it. My husband calls it daydreaming, I call it work. Basically, I do no writing for a few days, but whenever I get a chance, I sit back, pop on my headphones, turn up the music, and let the character in. He will tell me his story, not all of it, but enough to give me an idea. This is usually the time I get a clear image of what the character looks like, I get glimpses into his personality, his past, his working life, etc. and I take notes.

Here is a short list of the things you need to know about your main character/s before you start writing about them:

1) Looks (hair colour, body shape, eye colour, height, etc) – You don’t have to go into too much detail here if you don’t want to. Some authors like to describe a character’s looks down to the over-sized pore on their chin, others’ enjoy giving only a faint outline, leaving the rest up to the reader’s imagination.
2) Job – Does his/her job allow them a lot of freedom? Will it make them rich? Are they in a dead-end job that makes them miserable? Perhaps, they have a low-paying job, but it’s one that makes them insanely happy.
3) Education – Education makes a big difference. Educated people talk and think differently than uneducated people, and the higher they’re educated, the “higher” the language. Education also shapes things like diet, sleep patterns, lifestyle choices (the amount of children they have, for instance), what they read, etc. Again, you don’t need to give details, but in your novel, through speech and narration, you’ll want to show your character’s level of education. Remember that not all education is formal. A lot of very successful people are self-educated.
4) Childhood – What kind of childhood did your character have? Happy, sad, abusive? Again, you don’t need much detail, but our childhood follows us into adulthood, it shapes us into who we become. The same is true for your characters. It’s important to know at least a little bit about your characters’ childhood.
5) Relationships – How does your character deal with romantic relationships? Is he a serial monogamist or an incurable womaniser? Maybe he’s a little bit of both? What about friendships? Does she make friends easily, or does she keep everyone at a distance?

What about arc? That, I feel, should develop naturally. Just like we grow as people in real life (or sink to the pits of despair), so your characters’ arcs must evolve naturally as you write. When you try to tie your characters down to a certain arc, try to force their growth or fall (there is more than one character arc), you will end up with stilted, forced characters.

What about personality? The same applies. You can have a faint idea what your character is like, but we are all multidimensional beings, with several different personality traits, if you try to hold your character to the few you’ve written down for him, you’ll end up with boring, predictable characters.

Of course, there are many writers who do it differently, and end up with great characters. There are also many who do it the way I do it, and end up with boring, flat characters. You can map out every detail of your character, right down to the car she drives, and the hair products she prefers, but most pantsers don’t do it. We like to get to know our protagonists (and even our antagonists) like we get to know people in real life.

When inspiration runs dry

It happens to the best of us. One day, we sit down at our desks and have no idea what to write about. We can wait for inspiration to hit us, or we can go looking for it. I prefer going out to look for it. Lately, I’ve been overrun with ideas (I’m not trying to rub anything in here, but it’s like someone gave my muse a kick up the ass or something), but it wasn’t always the case. I would go from site to site, blog to blog, forum to forum, trolling for ideas. Sometimes, something would hit me, more often than not I’d just get lost in a maze of true crime sites.

Writing prompt sites are rarely inspirational – often, it borders on those essay topics your high school English teacher assigned. While they feel familiar, those prompts will rarely lead to anything more than a writing exercise, which isn’t necessarily bad, writing well takes practice, and you have to do it every day if you want to be good at it. Athletes run every day, we write. That’s the nature of our beast.

So what to do when you find yourself sitting at your desk, drumming your fingers, wracking your brain and thinking that maybe it’s time to give it all up? You go looking for ideas, that’s what you do.

Stephen King wrote Misery based on a dream he had. I have written short stories based on dreams I’ve had. I have woken up from dreams so vivid and fresh, but incomplete, that I wanted to know, what happens next? Keep a dream diary. When you wake in the morning, write your dream down. Remember to include how the dream made you feel. Emotion is an important part of fiction writing, and you want to hang on to the feelings you experienced in your dream. Don’t just write down “scared” or “happy” – go all out, and describe your emotion in detail. Often that little exercise is enough to kick start you creativity.

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Training your muse

I’m not always fond of using the word muse, because the way I see it you are your own muse, but writers like to give their talent a name, so let’s call it the muse, shall we?

Traditionally the muse is female, but screw tradition. Your muse can be anything you want it to be. Sometimes, we get a say in the matter, other times we really don’t. My friend Sarah Dahl’s muse is a troll. Mine is a short, sturdy man with long black hair, bright blue eyes, tattoos, a little stubble on the face, and a penchant for leather. He’s a bit of a bad boy, forever getting into trouble. I didn’t choose this guy, he just showed up one day. There he was, sitting on my desk, one ass on, the other off, swinging his left leg to and fro, going, “Howzit? I’m your muse.”

The muse, I guess, is the one responsible for your inspiration. He runs off, fetches the people who needs to tell their story, and brings them to your desk (or wherever you sit and work). Other times, he comes back to you alone, but he’ll have the story ready for you.

Often though, the muse just won’t cooperate. He’ll show up late, or he’ll just sit there, twiddling his thumbs, refusing to fetch your story for you. Other times, he’s so stubborn he won’t show up at all.

You have to train your muse to show up at the same time every day, and do his job! It might take a while, but it’s worth it in the end. So where do you start?

Start working at the same time every day
If you are new to writing, you may not yet know when your best writing hours are. Everyone’s most productive hours are different, but most of us can write any time of the day and night when push comes to shove. The idea is though, to start writing at roughly the same time every day – that way, you’ll get into a nice rhythm and your muse will get used to you being at your desk at the same time every day. At first, you’ll have to go fetch the little bugger, tell him to sit down and stay put, but over time he’ll get used to it, and eventually he’ll show up at the appointed hour, ready to get started.

Do not wait for the muse to come to you
I can not stress this enough. The muse is a fickle being, and if you wait for him, you’ll wait forever. If he refuses to show up, get up and go find the bastard, feed him some caffeine, and tell him to do his damned job, or he’s fired. If he just sits there and watches you with his pretty, big blue eyes, ignore him. Start writing anyway. Write about anything, your day, your luscious green pot plant’s life cycle – anything will do. Yes, it will probably suck eyeballs, and it will be painful, but eventually the muse won’t be able to resist and he’ll jump in to help.

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Approaching your writing

We all approach the art of writing differently. Stephen King likes to work in a room with a door he can close, blasting rock music (AC/DC, Metallica, that kind of thing). Hey it works for him, he churns out novels faster than I can read them. I don’t need a closed door, but I do need music. I anchor myself to my stories with music.

Before we get to that, let’s discuss the workspace. This is mine:


It’s not always this neat. I thrive in chaos (note: not dirt). My children also have a way of bringing me things, toys mostly, throughout the day that end up on my desk. I don’t always take the dinosaurs back to their toy box right away, just sort of push them of to the side.

The things you see in the picture are always on my desk. On the left, next to the Coca-Cola, is my Collins Dictionary. I have the Thesaurus too, but it’s in the drawer. I always have coke, sometimes it’s in a glass, not a bottle, and coffee – and yes, I mix the two. I will finish my coffee and go straight to the coke. I’m addicted like that. I always need my asthma inhaler on my desk, for some reason I get panicky if it’s not right at hand, and in case of emergency, I have headache powders (next to the inhaler), although I take those infrequently.

Under my little pink lamp there, you can see my generic MP3/MP4 player thingy. We have a lot of blackouts here, and I can’t write without music, so I keep it there on standby (I stream all my music through Deezer, so when the power goes out, my music dies). My headphones are always plugged in, and when I’m at my desk, on my head where they belong. Next to the MP3 player is my notebook. There’s usually a pen on top of that book, but I think my kids walked off with it. On the right, next to my mouse, is the whiteboard marker. I don’t know what that’s doing there, I rarely use the whiteboard.

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The negative side of NaNoWriMo

Are you amped up for National Novel Writing Month? Itching to start? Have your plot outlines, your character whatevers, your coloured pens and timelines tacked to the wall? All the research done, your pencils sharpened, alarms set for midnight, 1 November, all stocked up on coffee and chocolate? Lovely. I’m happy to hear it.

But …

Gather round, kidlets. We need to have a little talk about the negative side of NaNoWriMo (NaNo). Let’s just clear this up right away. I love NaNo, but it’s not without its faults. So, for the love of the written word, the muse who brings us here, and every publishers’ sanity, keep a few things in mind.

50 000 words is not a novel
It just scrapes by. These days, people want more bang for their buck, that means more words per novel, not less, and unless you write a spectacular, mind-blowing, life-altering, never-before-seen book, no one’s going to publish it. You can publish it yourself, but don’t be surprised if sales are a little on the low side. True, novellas are published, but rarely – if you don’t have a big name to back it up, you need to write something that’s gonna set off fireworks, and that almost never happens.

Your NaNo novel is a first draft
It is not a marketable book. You can not, must not, should not, submit your first draft to a publisher. Ever! You can not, must not, should not, self publish your first draft. Ever! First drafts are for your eyes only, and maybe a close writing buddy who can offer feedback. For the love of all that is good and right in this world, take some time, put your NaNo novel aside for a month or two and wait. Come back to it with fresh eyes in January, then edit and redraft as needed. I know you probably think you’ve just written an earth-shatteringly good book, but odds are you didn’t. I know, I’ve had those thoughts myself. Looking back, I rather enjoy my naivety and often have a good, long, hard laugh at myself.

What you write in November is a first draft, and given that the rules state you shouldn’t go back and change anything, it’s probably not a very good first draft at that. So please, do us all a favour, don’t publish, or submit to a publisher, your first draft NaNo novel, especially if you’ve never written a novel before November. Publishers and readers will thank you for it.

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