I’m batting ideas about for something to work on for National Novel Writing Month, which has been an interesting chance for me to see my method in action—it’s been a while since I started a new project, and I’ve learned a lot about things like plotting and characterization since the last time I started from scratch with something.
On the character side, most writers ask a variation of “What do they want?” What is it that this character is struggling to get over the course of the story? PC-ness of a kind rules the romance writer’s answer to this question: “they want to find true love” is insufficient. (Who would want to write an entire novel about this person, let alone read it?) Like in real life, work on yourself first, buddy, and then dates will come.
In thrillers, another of my interests, the question has an answer that is so obvious it’s useless as a character development tool—and so blinding it has been hard for me to figure out the alternative. What does our hero want? Why, not to get killed, of course. Any other questions, Sherlock? (So of course, occasionally you can create someone interesting who doesn’t care if he’s killed—isn’t Mel Gibson suicidal in the first Lethal Weapon movie? But that doesn’t work as an ongoing device, and it’s a goal that probably must be thwarted, which creates other problems.)
How I help myself is by thinking about the character before the first knife was thrown: what got interrupted by the current crisis, and how do they respond—both to the crisis and to the interruption. Sometimes these points are clear and even add tension to the crisis: does the character have to keep something secret? Does this add a ticking clock to the problem?
My other helpful hint is to bail on the external conflict and think about internal. This is realistic: in a crisis, the first thing to go is your daily to-do list in favor of the big picture. On the noveling side, it gives clues how the characters will react to the crisis: will they be the ones hiding under the furniture or breaking up chair legs to make stakes? This also gives some clues about setting: the kid with the long-term goal of getting into medical school will have different stuff on their desk than the kid who wants to make the pom squad. Keeping in mind that we only care about what’s on their desks because that’s where the villain thinks the secret code is hidden . . .
This story generator may also come in handy during NaNo.