Creating realistic and fully fleshed-out characters is essential to quality storytelling. There are plenty of ways to fill characters out, particularly in revision. I’m going to share with you some tips for getting the jump start on those characters, and with some short exercises, you may find your characters coming to life before you’ve even started page one of your novel.

This is a great way to get a head start on NaNoWriMo!

National Novel Writing Month is coming. You really want to do it this year, and you have a great idea. That’s good, but the problem is: most ideas are just beginnings. Sometimes they’re endings, if you’re lucky. But no matter what, that first seed of an idea rarely includes the middle. And that’s what every novel needs: a beginning, middle, and end. The only way to know if that seedling can grow into a complete story is to outline that sucka. Click through for some tips on getting there!

Fellow writers know how much discipline it takes to complete an entire novel. I love the idea of creating COMMANDMENTS for the current work in progress. This example is from Henry Miller (courtesy of the blog, A Lovely Being):

Henry Miller Miscellanea - Work Commandments

There are a few items about staying on task and trying to finish the current book. I think a lot of writers today can relate. We just had a discussion in our writing group the other night about what we’re thinking of doing next. It’s only natural; you can get bogged down in a novel and sometimes you need a break. And when a writer is taking a break, a writer has to write, so sometimes you start the next big thing. Personally, I try to fill my breaks with short fiction writing: nice, bite-sized chunks. Great for getting that sense of writing accomplishment and then moving on and going back to the Damn Novel.

Of course, a few of these commandments are out of my realm of possibility. I’d love to have a rigid work schedule, but with a day job that doesn’t always start exactly at 9am and end at 5pm, it’s not easy. Even so, I can’t overstress how important it is for me to at least try to touch the work in some way every day. I aim to hit it briefly in the morning before work and then again in the evening. By planning for two writing appointments, I usually hit at least one of them.

Looking at the time that these work program commandments were written (1932-1933), I wonder if Miller was trying to finish Tropic of Cancer (published in 1934), and having already started Black Spring (which was published in 1936) he was trying to avoid working on that or anything else. According to his autobiographical timeline, in 1933 he “Began book on Lawrence which was never finished.” Nonetheless, commandments can be helpful even if they’re occasionally broken!

In any case, it’s obvious that Miller’s list was written for himself and not meant to be advice for everyone. I’m thinking about making my own list of commandments as I try to finalize my second novel (tentatively called Crossfade).

Has anyone else handed themselves down an edict from on high?

I recently attended a workshop (at the Wordstock Festival) that focused on a list of fifteen ways to writing better protagonists. You see, sometimes a writer has a dilemma because their protagonist is not necessarily a hero. There is a scale that goes something like: super-villain – – villain – – unsympathetic – – sympathetic – – hero – – angel. Novelists should be avoiding the extremes, but their main characters might not necessarily be a hero, or even entirely sympathetic.

When your main character isn’t a hero, then what are they? They might be a regular, ordinary, flawed human being. Think about your average person – someone in your office, on the street, whatever. Do you really want to read a whole book about this jackass? No, of course not. And in the case that your protagonist is a “hero” – are they someone who is untouchable, invincible? It doesn’t make for a very interesting story if there is no risk factor for a character.

Some of the points this workshop tried to make were along those lines. Making sure your ordinary people have one very interesting quality worth reading about. Making sure your heroic types have a flaw or two to bring them back down to Earth. And making sure your normally unsympathetic types (criminals, anti-heroes, losers, jackasses, etc) are fixed (for lack of a better word) so that readers can like or relate to some part of them, rather than be disgusted or annoyed with them the whole time.