Nanowrimo 2014: Strong Characters

It is that time of year again! 

Yes – November! And for some, it’s the month where you grow out a beard with the enthusiasm of all around you in order to raise money for charity; for others, it’s the countdown to Thanksgiving and Good Friday and all that is wrapped up in that; and still others, it’s just the month between Halloween and Xmas that has no purpose but to move past quickly so they can get to the gingerbread and mistletoe. And then there are those of the writing inclination: for us, November is Nanowrimo – that is, National Novel Writing Month (even though, I have realized it isn’t National so much an International, but whatevs.)

For this month, I am participating, which means that by midnight, November 30th I will have written a 50k word novel, or at least have written 50k words that may one day (after multiple revisions and more words) be considered a novel! 

I will chart my progress here on the blog on Mondays and Fridays, and since it’s Nano, the days I am not charting my progress I will also post a book review for you guys! On Mondays, I will post a discussion on novel writing things – plot, characterization, how to stay motivated and determined, and such things. And on Fridays, I will go through the number of words I wrote, where I am in lieu of the entirety of the novel and what predictions I can make for the following week. 

This Monday’s topic is: Strong Characters. 

Strong characters are difficult to always pull off. They need to be so many things, it seems – smart but not too smart, doubting but not too doubting, kept in the dark but not TSTL – where does one get the genius -and organization- to pull this off?

First, a disclaimer – when I say “strong” I mean literary-minded “strong” – that is, a complex character. I make this distinction because sometimes the words we use get lost in all the seperate meanings we give them, that we end up having two separate conversations, even though we think we’re having one. 

Let me explain. 

A while back, there was a lot to do about strong female characters – or rather “Strong Female Characters”. There were pro and con lines and essentially, the cons (i.e. those against the SFCs) were basically saying that “strong” was the identifier here, with all other complexities and emotions washed away from female characters so that they could never appear weak. They couldn’t cry or loose their temper or have catty moments or revel in the misery of an enemy – they were just strong. And of course, just being ‘strong” means you lack the complexity that is required of a good character.  

So when I say “strong” I mean as a character, not as in “shows no emotion, is always strong”. 

K? Right, moving on. 

Writing complex characters can be difficult – you own these imaginary people, they’re in your head, hashing out their stories while you think, and you can get attached to them. And then it becomes difficult to give Bob that nasty temper you first imagined him with, or have Ella do something most people would consider awful because now you kind of like her. I would like to say that with age and maturity this becomes easier, but it’s not true. Or at least, not for me. I still cry for my characters when bad things happen to them, still get angry at them when they’re morons or disappointed when I knew they could have done better. 

But all that not-so-great stuff makes for good stories. 

No really –  if you only had a story of wunderkins who did everything right all the time, never screwed up and had no baser emotions, who would want to read that!? I mean, I know I wouldn’t. Who would even be able to identify with that kind of a protagonist? We’re all screwups of some kind  – it’s the human condition. So when confronted with characters that are too good to be true … we usually lose interest or make internet memes. 

Strong characters make everything a little more gritty, a little more real and a lot more complicated – essentially, they add drama, and drama is something we like. We want to go through a range of emotions when we read – we want to rage, to weep, to laugh, to sigh with comfort at some resolutions while railing against others. If the character is too easy, than the story is too easy – and we won’t want to read it. 

So, that being said – how does one write a strong character?

Well, I am not entirely sure. I generally have a rule of thumb that goes a little like: If I were to meet this character IRL – would I want to get to know them? Or do they seem boring, flimsy or cliche? I also pepper my characters with real life people – just little things that remind me of friends, family or people I’ve met over the years. 

I would also recommend looking through characters that have inspired you – you want a complex female character? Buffy. Seriously – she is strong (literally and figuratively) but cries, doubts, gets mad, falls in love, gets hurt – she does it all. And then she stands back up again and continues on because we want more of her story. Actually, most if not all the Buffyverse characters are complex, strong characters. Orphan Black is much of the same – and so are book series like The Hunger Games. Basically, these are the characters that can’t be summed up in caricature form: The Angry Black Woman, the Hairy Yelling Feminist, The Underdeveloped Buck-Toothed Nerd, the Stupid Jock, etc. 

Writing strong characters is important for your novel – it differentiates you now from you as a second grader, and it makes the novel itself a better read. So take your time and invest in well thought out, complex characters with emotional depth – it’s worth it and it’s fulfilling. 


Any other recommendations for strong characters? 


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