This is the least prepared I’ve been for NaNoWriMo since eighth grade, when I read about it in the paper on November 5.
I have no plot outlined. I have no carefully drawn maps and plans. I didn’t even have characters or the inkling of an idea until a week ago.
This is going to be fun.
Anyway, this weekend I’m finally doing some very brief character cheat sheets, because I can’t bear to go in completely blind. I am not a pantser (NaNoing by the seat of my pants, if you need a translation). I need some semblance of structure.
Even if you like to go in blind, having some idea of what your characters are like is good. What’s more important than anything else, though, isn’t what they look like or how they dress or even what they lie awake thinking about at 3 am. (Although knowing all of these things will help.) The most important thing to know is this:
What do they want?
But let’s back up and go through this step by step. My super short cheat sheets are structured like this:
Name. Seems obvious, but I’m terrible at them. Names are hard. Sometimes I pick something that sounds nice or occurred to me randomly. Other times, I look up something with a little extra meaning. The site babynamesworld.parentsconnect.com has been a lifesaver for me. You can search names by gender, first letter, meaning, ethnic origin, and more. Of course, if you need something fast, grabbing a phone book is also handy.
Age. This is generally nice to know. What can your character legally do, and what would he or she get arrested for? (Note – if it’ll get him/her arrested, I’d say go for it. Those escapades are always the most fun to read.)
Appearance. This isn’t super important. You don’t need to tell us that he/she has ‘flowing ebony locks and eyes like limpid tears’. Still, having some clue of what they look like for reference is probably a good idea. Otherwise you might mess up and have a character refer to ‘that redhead’, leaving your readers utterly confused, since ‘that redhead’ is a brunette. I like to hint at the character’s personality with their appearance. Someone reckless might constantly be sporting bruises. A guy with big plans is constantly jiggling his leg or playing with a pencil. A girl with a secret has a posture more locked down than a quarantine.
Personality. NaNoWriMo is a rough draft, yeah, but you want it to be salvageable. (I have yet to have that happen, but I live in hope!) Characters’ personalities are not set in stone. No one acts exactly the same every day in every situation, but you should have an idea of their baselines. How does your character act around strangers? Around friends? Alone? Why do they act the way they do?
Desires. This, as I said earlier, is the most important part. What does your character want? His or her actions should be focused on this goal. Of course, the goal can change as the story progresses. The whole idea behind plot is figuring out what your character wants and throwing every obstacle you can in his or her way.
Arc. You may not know your characters’ arcs yet. I’m a little iffy on them myself. Ideally, you have at least an idea of where your character starts and where he/she ends. They should progress (or regress throughout the story, and all of their experiences, interactions, and scenes should push them one way or another on this path.
Quirk. No, I don’t mean make them a quirky ManicPixieDreamGirl, but giving a character a distinguishing trait can make them stand out. This quirk might be verbal, behavioral, whatever. In my last project I had a guy constantly popping breath mints – he’s a reporter, don’t want to scare a source away with nasty breath – and an insecure guy constantly ending his sentences with ‘am I right’ or ‘right’.
Anyway, I hope this was helpful. It’s just a way I organize my thoughts before I start writing. Other people may do it differently. Whichever way you plan – if you plan at all – good luck and happy NaNoWriMo!