Surviving Nanowrimo # 3: Finding your character

When I begin a story, I don’t even know what the story or novel s going to be. Since I always begin with a character, I use a prompt(s) to discover my protagonist. In the case of the exercise in “Surviving Nanowrimo # 2,” I began with Chad. An opening sentence in my rough draft might go like this:

Chad didn’t have a date so she brought her surfboard to her brother’s birthday party.

That’s all I know about Chad. At this point I don’t even know if she is the protagonist of the story. It’s like meeting a stranger on the street. By the end of the story, I will know this character better than I know my best friend.

I do not do a character biography. I find it distracting to try to remember all the details in the biography and when to use them. No, the way I come to get to know this character and others is to watch them in action.

Now Chad may not be the protagonist. But more than likely she will be. The reason being that I liked her response to my question: “What’s a nice girl like you doing with a big surfboard like that in a place like this?”

Her response: “Waiting  for the Second Coming. You have heard of the Second Coming, haven’t you?”

She was interesting. And she left me with more questions. So much so that I wrote the following for a first few paragraphs:

Chad didn’t have a date so she brought her surfboard to her brother’s birthday party.

“You’ll do anything to be the center of attention,” her brother said, handing her a drink.

She laughed. “So?”

“But did you have to bring that surfboard to do it?”

“Well, I want to be ready for the Second Coming.”

““I thought it had already occurred at Ulu Watu.”

From the opening sentence, the reader is seeing the character in action. The opening line makes the reader ask questions.

Then we see her in a relationship. She is interacting with her brother. Often this is how we discover who a person is and whether we want to be around them: how they interact with others.

In the opening paragraphs, we also learn something about the kind of relationship she has with her brother. They are both into surfing.

When I first looked at the two pictures, I knew nothing about the subjects of the photographs. By putting the woman with the surfboard in the party photograph, I created a “huh” in my subconscious. I got out of the way and allowed my subconscious to come up with that first sentence. Then one thing led to the other. From these few lines, I discovered that Chad is someone I like and will enjoy spending time with.

When beginning a novel or short story, a writer has to realize she may be living with her protagonist for months, maybe years. The writer has to enjoy the protagonist’s company and care about them.

Just look at how long J. K. Rowling spent with Harry Potter. And we can tell how much she loved Harry.

And remember there are no boring characters, only boring stories. When we first meet a character, it may appear that she is a boring person. She has the same routine, the same foods everyday. She wears boring clothes and has boring friends. If a character is like that, it makes us ask the question: Why is she so boring? That may be the story.

Or the story may be about a boring person who has something interesting happen to them. This is the plot of Jerzy Kosiński’s Being There. Chauncey has been a gardener his whole life. The only experience he has of the outside world is from watching television. One day his benefactor dies. And Chauncey is thrown out into the world.

Once we see that a character is going to be a protagonist, we have to dig and discover what that character wants more than anything in the world, why do they want it and what’s stopping them. That will be the subject of “Surviving Nanowrimo # 4.”

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