Characters out of Context

S and I are counting down the days until NaNoWriMo starts, and we’ve just about finished all our prep work.  We have outlines, character profiles, and even maps.  The last thing I’m doing before I start actually writing my novel (Last Outpost), is to spend a little time getting to know my characters a little better.

One trap that writers can fall into is turning our characters into mere cogs in the wheel of the plot.  And this is particularly a danger for those of us who are obsessive outliners, like me and S.  It’s all too easy to look at the outline and not bother to think about character or motivation when you read something like, “Susan goes to the market, meets Bob.”  Why did Susan go to the market?  Well, to meet Bob.  And why did she meet Bob?  Well, because it’s their story, and it’s chapter 2, and it’s time for them to meet, already.  I’ve completely failed to consider what Susan might have been planning, or what she was doing before she ran into Bob, or what sort of a person she might be that she’s going to that particular market in that neighborhood at that particular time.

To keep myself from making that mistake, I like to write some short scenes with my characters–scenes that are outside the plot of the story and aren’t intended ever to be used as part of it.  The point of this is to put a character in various situations and see what happens.  I just free write; I don’t try to outline these scenes (there’s no point, since they’re usually only 400-600 words long).  This helps me to think of the character as a real person, rather than simply as a game token to be pushed around the board as the plot requires.

Most of the prompts I use are from the Poets & Writers website.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Express lane character check.”

A secret inscription.”

The holidays.”

Where leaving takes us.”

And this one is always especially fun: “Nice Try.”

That one involves you (as the author) imagining getting an earful from a disgruntled minor character.  And in fact I try to do a number of these prompts from the POV of secondary characters, so I get a sense of what they’re like and how they really feel about the main characters of my novel.

Some of these were clearly designed to help writers get started and give them ideas for new stories.  I use them when I already have a story and characters, however.  For me, they’re a way of getting to know the characters a little better by taking them out of the context of my story.  And even if they don’t end up in the novel, the short scenes can become part of a character’s backstory if they turn out well.  In any case, it’s a good warmup for NaNoWriMo, so I get back into the habit of writing several thousand words per day.


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