From Characters to Plot to First Draft: A Drama-Free Way to Write Your First Novel. Step 1.
First of all let me say there is no right or wrong way to write a novel. Some people just go with the flow, but if you're feeling overwhelmed and you need a structure to help you get started then this is the method that worked for me.
Step 1: Put Your Characters First
You may have a great idea for your plot, but I would always recommend starting with your main characters. It's a good idea to bring them to life before you go any further. Don't just do this for your main character, do this for all of your main characters (the protagonist, the antagonist and anyone else who is going to feature heavily). I appreciate you may not know all of your characters yet (in fact I ended up dropping some of the characters I thought would be key before I wrote my first draft) but this is a good starting point.
There are lots of ways to do this including:
Brainstorming: Get a blank sheet of paper and write down everything you can think of about your character. One sheet per character - don't be tempted to do them all together.
Mind Mapping. A more visual way of brainstorming each character. Here's a mind map I did for the character of Fat Frankie Finch from Driven. It doesn't have to be neat (as you can see) just get those ideas down on paper.
Decide on names. Choosing your character names is an important part of cementing their identity. If you haven't found the right name yet there are lots of useful resources out there: use baby name generators, telephone directories, re-runs of Murder She Wrote, whatever you find works until you come up with the right names for your characters.
Sketch or draw pictures of your characters along with their body types, the kinds of clothing they wear, hair style etc. If you can't draw it doesn't matter. Write a list of key physical attributes or trawl the internet or magazines looking for people that look like your character.
Mannerisms: Does your character bite her nails when she's nervous, does she jiggle her left leg? Does she comfort eat?
Back story: While it might not directly impact on your novel, giving your character a backstory helps to flesh them out and bring them to life. Did they have a privileged childhood? Were they traumatized by losing a pet? Were they the popular kid at school? The nerd? The bully?
Anxieties and insecurities: Everyone has their own insecurities and worries - what are your characters'?
What do they do? What job do they do? What hobbies do they have? What type of house do they live in? What do they enjoy doing?
A good exercise for making your characters come to life is to create social media accounts for them. You'll find yourself really getting inside their heads and they'll be much easier to write. It can be time-consuming, but it's a good way of bringing your characters to life.
** Top Tip: Make a list of research topics as you complete these tasks. For example: if one of your characters is a yoga teacher you might need to research yoga poses. Don't get distracted by doing it now, note it down and you'll come to the research stage later. **
Don't Forget to Make Your Characters Flawed!
It's not just the villain in your story who should have a character flaw, even the most loved heroes need to be flawed too.
Think of your favourite fictional detectives: Poirot is fastidious and vain, Morse is irritable, drinks too much and is an intellectual snob; but do we love them any the less for that? Of course not! In fact it's their character flaws which make them leap out of the page to us.
The important thing is to give your characters a flaw (or flaws) that they need to overcome. Otherwise they'll come across as two-dimensional and your readers will lose interest in them.
More on using your character's flaw to create a character arc and build your plot in Part 2.
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I read quite a few books on my way to writing my first draft but these were two that I found particularly useful:
- First Draft in 30 Days by Karen Wiesner
- Take Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing by Libbie Hawker