MYC: A Reformed Pantser’s Guide to Character Development

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series on character development with a post on supporting characters. This week, I’ll share tips on fleshing out characters using my three favorite craft books.

A lot of writers start out writing by the seat of their pants (i.e. jumping in to drafting with no prior pre-writing/planning/outlining). After the painful process of seeing just how big of a dumpster fire my first drafts are when I don’t do any pre-writing, I moved toward the planning end of the spectrum and I called in the experts (in the form of craft books).

via GIPHY

I like to pre-write in a way that leaves my creativity room to change course and explore as I draft. So I spend the bulk of my pre-writing time working on character development. Because once that character starts talking to me, I know I can rely on her to tell me what needs to happen next in the story. Getting that character talking can be a challenge though. Here’s what I do…

I will admit up-front that I write character-driven stories, so you’re not going to get a lot of plot talk here. My what-if dreaming sometimes has a plot element to it, but it’s usually character-focused. Even if I start with a concept that is plot-based (for example, my work in progress right now started out as Goonies meets Hoot), the first thing I do is start thinking about who my main character is, what her interests are, how she interacts with her family and friends, and what’s going to make her the best heroine for this particular story. In this case, I knew I wanted the hero of the adventure to be a girl (don’t get me started on the problematic aspects of the girls in Goonies, that’s another blog post entirely), and not just any girl, but a tomboy who wanted, more than anything, to be an engineer so she could develop medical devices to help disabled people like her father.

At this stage I often make lists of hobbies, favorite books, what type of clothes she typically wears, what she loves, what she hates, what she’s most afraid of. I think about tropes and stereotypes and how I can turn them on their head here as I create this new person. This is where I do all the dreaming before I get down to the hard work of putting flesh and bone and soul into the character.

That hard work begins with Lisa Cron’s amazing Story Genius method. It focuses on what she calls the “Third Rail” or the combination of the character’s desire and the misbelief that keeps the character from achieving that desire. The book, and the Author Accelerator course that is based on it, takes you through the process of identifying that third rail and the pieces of the character’s backstory that led to the formation of the desire/misbelief combo. I also develop a third rail for my antagonist and any important secondary characters. [full disclosure: I work for Author Accelerator and help coach writers through Lisa’s Story Genius method, but I have also used it for my past two manuscripts. I promise, it works.]

Once I have an idea of what the character wants and what’s standing in her way, next I go back to my story structure favorite, Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. My favorite thing about this book is that it ties a four-part character arc – Orphan/Wanderer/Hero/Martyr – to the four-act structure of a typical plot (click for more information on story structure). I use broad strokes to identify the main character’s mindset during each of these four acts, so that I have a very high-level view of the character arc.

All POV characters need an arc. Even if you’re writing the plottiest of plotty thrillers. I promise. A few supporting characters should have minor arcs to make the story emotionally satisfying as well. Extras (minor characters that would normally inhabit the main character’s world but who aren’t instrumental to moving the plot forward) don’t necessarily need arcs or they should be very minimal.

The next part is fun, especially if you enjoy torturing your characters. Because I then take my new character through Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. My biggest take-away from it is the idea of complicating the character’s desires and obstacles to inject more tension into the story. Coming up with ways to complicate/deepen the character is usually what helps me figure out what needs to happen in the major plot points.

So that sends me back to Story Engineering. I fill out a beat sheet with the major plot points and then I’m ready to move on next week’s topic, writing a long-form synopsis for brainstorming on plot and character. See you then!

JULIE ARTZ writes stories for children that feature the natural world, folklore, mythology, history, and all that is magical about those things. In addition to contributing to The Winged Pen, she works as a developmental editor for Author Accelerator, is a Pitch Wars mentor, and contributes regularly to From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. She is represented by Jennie Dunham of Dunham Lit. You can also follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Our Holiday Wish List – Craft Books!

Many of us will spend at least two weeks in December hiding from our children with our nose in a book. At The Winged Pen, our wish lists are full of books that inspire our creativity or deepen our craft. So here’s a peek at the writing books we loved and the books we hope to receive this holiday season. If you have a writer on your gift list, you might just find the perfect gift below:

 

Rebecca: Story Engineering by Larry Brooks pushed my writing to the next level. It impressed upon me the importance of plot points in the structure of a story. Moreover, I love the framework it uses for tying your main character’s arc to the plot points so they are learning and growing into a hero over the course of the book, and their heroic win at the climax is earned.

And Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole is next on my TBR list.

 

 

Julie: My favorite discovery this year was definitely Lisa Cron’s Story Genius. We teach this method to writers at Author Accelerator and I now use it every time I plan a new book or story.

 

And I’m hoping that I’ll get to read Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg sometime soon because so many of my writing pals have recommended it!!!

 

 

 

Laurel: Libbie Hawker’s Making It In Historical Fiction is a very straightforward discussion of tropes in historical fiction.

 

Lately, I keep finding myself turning back to Rachel Aaron’s 2K to 10K: Writing Faster, Writing Better, Writing More of What You Love.

 

 

Halli:  I recommend On Writing by Stephen King because it not only gives great writing advice and tips, but reminds us all even famous authors were once where we were.

Note: Another Penny pointed out that you could read the transcript of the speech King gave when he was awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contributions to American letters, which is like a condensed version of On Writing.

And Story Genius is on my Christmas list! [See, I might have been evangelizing it just a wee bit–Julie]

 

 

Sussu: I love The First 50 Pages by Jeff Gerke, absolutely fabulous. I love the way he tells us to write the first chapter as a short story independent of the main story. Light bulb moment!

 

 

On my wish list, I have The Magic Words by Cheryl B. Klein.

 

 

 

Karin: I love Story Genius and Story Engineering, but as they have been already accounted for, I will add one that isn’t heard about so much but had a big impact on me: From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler. He brings his former experience as an actor to the writing process and calls it “method writing.” Writing is about dreaming your way into the character and the scene and feeling the underlying yearning.

 

 

 

 

 

MichelleThe Plot Whisperer was the perfect companion read for a PlotWriMo class I once took on revision. The book is a bit philosophical, which appealed to me, and I highly recommend it because of Martha Alderson’s thorough explanation of how to integrate plot with character transformation.
I’m a fan of Matt Bird’s Cockeyed Caravan blog for writers, and I’m excited about his new craft book The Secrets of Story: Innovative Tools for Perfecting Your Fiction and Captivating Readers.

 

 

 

Gita: My favorite take-away from Robert McKee’s Story is his “principle of antagonism,” which is guaranteed to deepen and complicate your WIP.

 

Still Writing by Dani Shapiro is for my wish-list for writing craft and wisdom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

JessicaWriting The Breakout Novel & The Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass. The workbook is a terrific resource to turn to when you’ve completed one or more rounds of revising and know your story needs work but can’t figure out what’s missing.

 

And I’m planning to read Getting Into Character by Brandilyn Collins next.

 

 

 

Kristi: I love Plot vs Character because I can never write my first draft from both perspectives. Once my first draft is done, I crack open this book to the page where the author has made a two sided map showing how the emotional plot and the action plot ebb, flow and merge. It’s magic!

And I want Cheryl Klein’s The Magic Words.

 

 

 

Readers, what craft books are on your must-read or holiday wish lists? Weigh in via a comment below–we always need more recommendations when it comes to craft books!