Listen, I’ve never had any trouble coming up with my own story characters, thankyouverymuch. My stories are very character-driven. I see their pasts, their motivations, their fears and desires. I know everything about them, and I fall in love.
Until I don’t. Until the day that I need a minor character and they need to have at least a little pizzazz, because they’re going to be a around for a while. But I’ve poured my life’s blood into the main characters, and my brain is objecting to this demand for further ideas: “What?! What I’ve given you isn’t enough? Tyrant! Madman! Socialist dictator! I see that Fidel Castro hat in your closet!”
Enter the Dragon
Just kidding. I mean, enter One Stop for Writers, a powerful resource library that provides a huge toolbox full of prompts, templates and story-enhancing details. I’ve mentioned these guys before. It was their site that gave me some extra motivation to dive into last year’s NaNoWriMo.
I’ve been on a search lately for tools that fit into my strategies for story process streamlining. One of my goals this year (2016) is to be more prolific: to write more short stories and finish more of my longer WIPs. To do this, I need to make the most of every moment I spend on “writing”. As a homeschool mom who values fresh food, doing things from scratch, and time with family (and as a small business owner who always has more client opportunities than time available), my writing time is budgeted. I’m sure you can relate, whatever your lifestyle.
So today I’m sharing my tactics for generating characters quickly using the One Stop tools. With a resource like One Stop, you’ll only get your money’s worth if you USE it. (Even at only $7.50/month, there’s no point spending the cost of a latte and a bagel unless you’re getting something out of it, right?)
And you’ll only use it if you make it a part of your process.
My Story Characters Process: First Make a List
I need some story characters for my current WIP. The protagonist, Andy, is a writer; he’s married with a young child. He’s a bit of an introvert, but no man is an island and his wife definitely has friends. So who else will show up in this story? That’s the first question.
His Writer’s Group
Andy needs humor in his life, so I want at least one of his writer friends to be funny in some way. But how? Does she have a humorous outlook on life, or is she the comic relief simply because she’s such a clown? I want a group of 3 other writers, each with contrasting personalities.
A Rival Writer & Nemesis
This story is a bit tongue-in-cheek, and I hope most writers don’t have a “nemesis” who taunts them and makes scathing remarks about them on social media. But Andy does. I need his nemesis to have some quirks and secrets to round him out. Maybe even a few likable characteristics that Andy doesn’t see through his haze of agitation towards the guy.
His Wife’s Best Friends
Andy’s wife, Alice, has a large network of friends. But I want one or two in particular that she’s close to. These are the people who influence her outlook on life (and Andy) the most. One will be a co-worker and one is a long-time friend she grew up with, maybe even a cousin.
Coming up with all these characters feels intimidating to me, especially when I list them all out like this (and actually this isn’t all of them! the story has a dozen other minor characters waiting to be imagined to life).
Next Step: Brainstorm with the Tools
Writer’s Group: Physical descriptions
First, what genders are these story characters? Andy is not an alpha male personality, and I think he relates well to women. Maybe he’s the only guy in his group. So I need 3 women.
- The funny gal
- The ambitious one
- The novice writer (an improvement project of the ambitious one)
Let’s give each of them some physical description. I’ll pop over to the Physical Features Thesaurus on One Stop:
I pick a general body type (slender, stocky, etc) for each one. Then I pick two details for each woman (eyes, hair, hands, etc), varying which features I use for each.
- The funny gal: sickly (her humor is part of her coping mechanism), cheeks hollow, skinny arms
- The ambitious one: petite build, fingernails that demand attention, legs built like an Olympic speed skater (roller derby amateur?)
- The novice writer (an improvement project of the ambitious one): stocky build, hunched shoulders (poor posture), eyes with a feverish sparkle
On the detail pages behind the list of features, One Stop gives a thorough rundown for each. For example, I choose “fingernails” as one of the features I focus on for the Ambitious writer.
- Descriptors: trimmed, decorated, glossy
- Common actions and alternative words: pick, drum, scratch (I can just see her now… picking at a mole on the underside of her jaw with those manicured nails, and then stopping when she realizes she’s doing it)
- Emotions and related gestures: she drums her fingers on the table when she’s impatient, then switches to her knee when someone glares at her to stop
One Stop also provides simile and metaphor examples and cliches to avoid (biting her nails to the quick, clenching her hands until the nails make dents in her palms), as well as suggestions for making the physical description do double duty in illustrating your character’s inner landscape. In thinking about how fingernails fit into my Ambitious writer’s psych profile, I realized she never misses a manicure appointment, because she considers her hands her most expressive trait and knows that her nails help draw attention to them. It’s all connected to her short-person issues (“Notice me! Notice me!”).
NOTE: Dearest short people in my life, honestly I am NOT patterning this gal after you. Heh heh. No, no, really!
See how quickly this character starts to feel well-rounded? Because One Stop was put together by writers, the details are story-ready. I would not have thought of fingernails, of all things, to focus on. It’s just not something on my radar screen, personally.
Using a tool that was designed by more than one person and which deliberately includes a wider scope opens many more possibilities than I’d come up with on my own.
A Rival Writer & Nemesis – Negative Traits
Story characters need more than just a physical description. And in the case of Andy’s rival, we don’t even know what he looks like, except perhaps a profile photo on social media. Andy has never met him in person, only encountered him online.
But wait, before we get to some negative traits, I just gotta name this guy. Since One Stop doesn’t have a name generator yet (that would be a neat addition!), I head over to BehindTheName.com to grab a likely name. If I want to go direct, I look up the word “rival” and use the name Emil.
Or maybe I want the nemesis to be Arabic, so I use the random name generator and select “Arabic” as the ethnicity. He could be Saif (“sword”) because he’s always poking at Andy. Or maybe he’s Malik (“king”) and he never lets Andy forget what his name means. “My mother knew while I was yet in her belly that she bore the king of talespinners inside her!”
Yeah, Malik Saif Hadad (for his last name I went to AllNames.org and clicked on Surnames and picked one of the most popular Arabic surnames).
Okay, so what are some negative traits I can give Malik?
So many fun things to choose from! But I’m moving quickly, so I’ll just pick three at semi-random and see how they fit together.
Addictive, catty, vain.
He’s addicted to approval, applause and validation from others (basically a social media addict), which is why he’s always mouthing off. He’s petty in his complaints and cheap shots at others. The vanity is all tied up in the approval addiction.
Check out the (truncated) detail page on addictive behavior:
Rounding out the Nemesis – Secrets & Wounds
This rival sounds really one-sided. Even though Andy may experience him that way, I don’t think he’ll feel real to me unless I give him some more layers. When I have a “bad guy”, I like to round him out with some unexpected things.
Here comes the fun: I’m heading over to the Idea Generator page at One Stop. It’s like having a hat full of good ideas. Just reach inside and pull one out and see if you like it.
Let’s see what Malik is hiding. Did he cheat to win that short story award? Yeah, maybe his greatest achievement so far was won using plagiarized prose!
What are his inner wounds? Maybe his family was involved in Islamic terrorism in the past. Now that such things are outlawed and considered a terrible shame, he has to use a fake name so he’ll never be linked with those activities. Maybe he bullies others because his mother bullies him; he has a wretched home life but talks big online.
What kinds of quirks does he have? I’m not sure whether any quirks will be obvious in an online relationship, but here’s one that inspires me as a writer: Malik collects bits of people. He doesn’t actually perform voodoo or believe in it, but when he meets with someone in person (or even when brushing past a stranger or standing in line at a coffee shop), he tries to collect some little piece of them: a strand of hair, a gum wrapper they throw away, fingernail clippings. He lacks relationships with others, and feels some small, freakish comfort from having these intimate connections with someone else, even though they are unaware of it. He doesn’t label the bits, he just puts them all into a jar he keeps on his desk. Sometimes he picks up the jar, holds it up to the light, and ponders the collection.
^ ^ ^
All of these ideas came from something in the idea generator prompts!
I begin to see it now. Malik has been so vocal for so many years that he can no longer get honest critiques or help with his work. People are afraid to be at the receiving end of his very public, verbal shreddings. Because of this, he only hears nice things (which he doesn’t believe, because he is plagued with self-doubt) or hateful things (which he expects because deep down he knows how awful he has been to people). He has created his own prison, and cannot see the way out. The only time he gets attention is when he is horrible to others, and yet he cannot stop because he is so starved for attention. A vicious cycle.
The Process Continues
I’ll be writing more posts like this as I continue the quest for my ultimate story writing process. I feel that One Stop for Writers is a powerful tool that I have yet to leverage to its full potential. Sharing the journey helps keep me accountable to continuing the exploration, instead of letting this resource languish ignored, like so many others in my past.
If you are taking steps on your writing journey this year, share them in the comments! I’d love to hear where you are in your process.
TIP: One Stop has a free version
When you visit the One Stop for Writers site, you can get a sampling of all the tools by creating a free account. Then you can see for yourself what I mean. Or sign up for a month and try it out.
Just make sure you USE it if you do. A tool left on the shelf is a waste of a good tool!