Tag: Writing Tips (Page 3 of 3)

#Amwriting October 10: Consider Subplots

Before we move on from plot and structure, let’s consider adding a subplot or two.


What is a subplot?

A subplot is a secondary or side story that supports the main plot.

Why Add Subplots?

Subplots can serve a couple different purposes, but the main one is to add depth and interest to a novel.


  • Reveal more about primary and secondary characters, making them more three-dimensional
  • Provide times of reflection or comic relief
  • Can drive certain plot points
  • Supply conflict or complications to test the main character
  • Are a way to show backstory organically


Let’s go back to the premise we created in the first post:

When he’s called in to investigate a hit-and-run accident, expert consultant John Smith discovers the death is intentional. He must find out the victim’s identity before the murderer strikes again.

One of the side branches of the mind map revealed that John Smith was called in because his uncle is the chief of police. A subplot might be that John’s uncle wants him to say the crash was an accident. Before long, John’s mom asks him to come to a family dinner. John knows it is a ploy to get him to listen to his uncle. John makes an excuse and dodges the dinner by going to question a witness.

This subplot serves multiple purposes. It adds tension. It shows John tends to avoid conflict, thus revealing his character. It also strengthens his resolve to prove his uncle wrong.

Maybe his mom tries to get him to come to dinner again later in the story to keep the subplot going, revealing more.

Some Subplots to Consider

1. Drama with Protagonist’s Day Job

My protagonist is an amateur sleuth trying to solve a crime. I’m going to have her unrelated day job get in the way.

Think of all the times school work interferes with Harry Potter’s progress toward his goal.

2. Romantic Interest

Your protagonist’s love life can either offer relief from the main plot’s tension or make them vulnerable (be a test).

3. Health Issues

I recently read a novel with a pregnant protagonist. The subplot included visits to various doctors and conflict with the baby daddy, both which slowed down her progress and increased tension.

4. Family

Thank goodness for family to add complexity to any story.  Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum character has an eccentric family that offers comic relief after she has a hard day battling bad guys.

Family can also drive plot points. In Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth’s sister runs off with an illicit lover, Darcy, who Elizabeth has previously spurned, comes to her rescue. This changes Elizabeth’s perception of Darcy and moves the plot toward resolution.

5. Past Trauma

Was your main character a victim? Do they have fears or emotional scars that make them vulnerable or hobble their ability to accomplish their goal?


Look through your list of secondary characters. Do any have the possibility of being developed into a subplot? How can they add to the main plot?

If you don’t have any likely candidates, consider adding secondary characters who would drive a subplot, such as coworkers at their day job or a psychologist your protagonist visits to discuss his/her/their past trauma.

Don’t be afraid to have more than one subplot. Harry Potter has not only his teachers and school work to consider, but also his past trauma of losing his parents.

Are you going to include a subplot in your NaNoWriMo novel?


Visit our 30 Day Novel Prep Page for all the links.

#Amwriting October 9: Structure 2: Formula or Flexible

We’ve covered The Hero’s Journey and  three act story structure. Now let’s spend one more day on structure and look at some other options.

As we discussed, for NaNoWriMo you might not have a lot of time to think about structure because you are writing like crazy. Plus, you can certainly add structure during your revision. On the other hand, if you get stuck wandering in a swampy middle, knowing some structural destination points might be the lifeline you need to succeed.

Here are a few of the more common structures. Some are rigid templates and some are more flexible. See if one works for you.

Four Act Structure

The four act structure is an extension of the three act structure that works well for mysteries. John P. Murphy’s article describes how it works.  He calls it a “two body plot” because the discovery of the body of a victim is a major turning point. Finding the second body changes things again. The third turn comes at the reveal, when the murderer is caught. Otherwise, it is a pretty loose structure.

Michael Hague’s Six Stage Plot Structure

Modified from the Hero’s Journey structure, this one holds your hand as it walks you through your novel. Michael Hague includes specific numbers in the form of percentages to indicate where the structural elements should be added. For example, he says turning point one should occur 10% into the novel. He calls the stages:

  1. Set up
  2. New situation
  3. Progress
  4. Complications and higher stakes
  5. Final push
  6. Aftermath

Janice Hardy explains that the Six Stage Structure can be good for people who don’t want to outline.

Seven Point Structure

The points are:

  1. Hook
  2. Plot turn 1
  3. Pinch 1
  4. Midpoint
  5. Pinch 2
  6. Plot turn 2
  7. Resolution


Dan Wells of Writing Excuses Podcast explains this structure in series of videos ( playlist). He uses clear examples to demonstrate how it works.

Tip:  Dan suggests starting at the end — at the resolution — rather than at the beginning. Great idea.

Eight Point Story Arc

Daily Writing Tips has a brief discussion of the eight point arc (developed by Nigel Watts and S. May), naming each step. Some of the steps are similar to the seven point structure, but have different names, which may make them easier to understand. For example, what is called “plot turn 1” in the seven point structure is called a “trigger” in the eight point.

The eight points  are:

  1. Stasis
  2. Trigger
  3. The quest
  4. Surprise
  5. Critical choice
  6. Climax
  7. Reversal
  8. Resolution

Save the Cat Beat Sheets

Save the Cat came out of screenwriting, but people have found it works for novels, too.

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book On Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need* by Jessica Brody

(*Amazon Affiliate Link)

Janice Hardy discusses the main steps. In this case the turning point events are called ‘beats.” Each one is pretty specific.

Joyce Sweeney’s Plot Clock

Joyce Sweeney’s Plot Clock is a four act roadmap for a novel set up in quarters, like a clock. It has some of the same elements as the others, but the timing is a bit different.


Yesterday you worked on your inciting incident, a common element in most of these structures. Now take Dan Wells’ advice and work on your resolution. Do you want a happy ending? A not so happy ending? Does the couple live happily ever after? Are the space nodules defeated? Is the serial killer caught?

Note:  Not everyone wants to know how their novel is going to turn out. That’s okay, too. Spend your time watching the Dan Wells videos instead.

Now that you know about structure, do you think you will use one? If so, which structure intrigues you?



Visit our 30 Day Novel Prep Page for all the links.

#Amwriting October 8: Discussing Plot and Structure

Continuing our  NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) preparation series, it is time to explore the differences between Plot and Structure and look at some examples.

Do you need to know your plot and structure before starting NaNoWriMo? Of course not.

It does help, however, to have an idea what plot and structure are and what some of your choices might be. Then if you get stuck in the middle, you have some ideas of where you should go next.


People often use the words plot and story structure interchangeably (I have been guilty of that myself), but there are distinctions.

Plot is what happens in the story, or saying it another way, the events that make up the story.

Structure is the mechanics or how you lay out your story. It is the design.

To use an analogy of a tent, plot is like the cloth, which can be made up of different colors, patterns, and types of material. Structure is the underlying frame, the supports and poles and such. Using the same cloth, but different structures, you might end up with a pup tent, a dome tent, a geodesic tent, a circus tent, party tent, bell tent, etc. I think you get the idea.



Plot 101

Although in reality there can be any number of plots, scholars have come up with general plot types or categories. Studying these general plot types can help you understand the reader’s expectations for your story. You can decide either to include all the traditional elements and ensure your plot meets those expectations, or if you are brave, you can blow them up by defying the expectations and turn them on their head.

One of the more popular way to label plots is from The Seven Basic Plot Points: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker.

  1. Rags to Riches (Cinderella)
  2. Overcoming the Monster (Jaws) -also called Underdog
  3. The Quest (Indiana Jones)
  4. The Voyage and Return (Lord of the Rings) – Hero’s Journey fits this
  5. Rebirth (A Christmas Carol)
  6. Comedy (Any novel with humor and a happy ending)
  7. Tragedy (MacBeth)

Mark Nichol has a good general discussion of “Types of Plots” at Daily Writing Tips. There are many more articles online, but Darcy Pattison has a list of 29 Plots that can get you started.

Plotto by William Wallace Cook (1928) has a complicated system to generate any number of plots, mostly romances. The language is dense and somewhat outdated, but could be a gold mine for story ideas if you have the time.

Structure 101

Structure Tip:  The most important thing to keep in mind is don’t try to support your plot with a structure that doesn’t fit. Plot and structure should go together easily.

Some Examples:

The simplest structure for a story is the Three Act Structure.

In Act 1, we have the set-up where we learn about the character(s), the setting, and the character’s desire. Usually there is also some sort of inciting incident to get the protagonist on the move.

Act 2 is often the longest of the three acts (they don’t have to be equal length). It is typically filled with conflict, giving rise to a big crisis.

The conclusion arrives in Act 3. There may be a final push or revelation, but the ending is resolution of some sort.

You may have learned Freytag’s Pyramid in school. It is a type of Three Act Structure.

  1. Exposition
  2. Rising action, climax, falling action
  3. Denouement or resolution

Some structures are genre specific, such as for a mystery or romance, and won’t work well for other genres. We’ll discuss some genre-specific structures later.

Exercise:  Regardless of what structure you choose, it will likely contain an inciting incident, which is an event towards the beginning of the story that starts your protagonist on his/her/their way. Think of it as a door or gateway that once the protagonist goes through, there is no turning back or stopping, for that matter.

Think about what might be inciting incidents in your story. Make a list of 5 or more possibilities (because we often list the most obvious first and the more creative ones after those are written down). Pick one or two to develop into a scene.


Visit our 30 Day Novel Prep Page for all the links.

#Amwriting October 7: Hero’s Journey and Beyond

Where is your story going? Perhaps it is going on a Hero’s Journey.

Writers arrive at their stories in many ways. Some writers construct a detailed outline in advance (plotters) and others begin to write and see where it leads them (commonly called pantsers). No matter what kind of writer you are, it helps to have an idea of how others have structured their stories before you start. Today we’re going to take a look at the Hero’s Journey, then how to go well beyond.

Hero’s Journey

Studied and popularized by Joseph Campbell, the Hero’s Journey is a commonly-touted story structure. Usually it involves a linear story with one protagonist who goes through a series of challenges. This narrative arc shows up most often in the adventure, road trip, and heroic fantasy genres (think Lord of the Rings).


Public Domain Illustration


If you haven’t heard of it before and want to learn more try:

1. Writing Excuses has a good overview podcast (episode 8.2) that explains what The Hero’s Journey is, how it can be misinterpreted, and how it can be useful. They suggest The Hero’s Journey can be a good guide, but advise against using it as a checklist. (If you prefer to read, there is a transcript of the episode).

2. Start with the references in this wikipedia article.

Simplified Version

Dan Harmon has simplified the arc into its essentials. Basically he says the character starts out in his/her/their comfort zone, but because they want something, they move into the unfamiliar. They adjust to the new normal and get whatever it is they wanted, but pay some sort of heavy price. When they return to their comfort zone, they are changed. Follow the links at the end of each article to learn more.

Going Well Beyond

Earlier this year at SinC NorCal August 1, 2020 meeting, Vanitha Sankaran spoke on Revolutionizing the Hero’s Journey. She follows storytelling around the world and reveals some interesting ways that cultures differ. Because it was a virtual conference, you get to see it, too.

It is well worth the time and be sure to have a notebook handy!


I’m going to watch it again today.

What do you think? Are you considering using some aspect of The Hero’s Journey?


Visit our 30 Day Novel Prep Page for all the links.

#Amwriting October 6: Reflection

If you have been following along our  NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) preparation series, now is time for some reflection. Let’s mull over not only what we have accomplished so far, but also how we might apply reflective moments to our novel.


Time to Gather Your Thoughts

We’ve done a lot of work over the last few days, so let’s take a bit of a breather. Look over your notes. If you’d like,  complete the character sheets, file your research notes, and take a few minutes to organize. Evaluate what you’ve done, and jot down your thoughts and feelings about your novel so far. After you’ve done that, plan what you personally need to do before your start writing on November 1, like prepare meals, clean the house, stock up on supplies, etc.

How is your planning going? Please let me know if you have questions or if you’d like to see a particular topic covered.

Tip:  Organizing not your strength? The Colorado Writer’s Collaborative recently posted a video about keeping up with your writing goals via sticky notes. Basically, you write your goals on sticky notes and then prioritize them. The woman had a board organized into three rows:  do now, do soon, and do later. As she complete the “do now” row, she removed those stickies and moved up the others, adding as needed.  I’ve used it for a few weeks for my to-do list and it is a pretty useful system. The only problem I’ve had is that sometimes I forget to break big projects into smaller, doable steps.

Unfortunately, they have removed the video.

Reflection in Your Novel

Now that you have some idea how useful reflection can be, it is time to apply it to your manuscript.

Not long ago I took a class from C.S. Lakin and she discussed what she calls the “Action-Reaction Cycle.”  It was one of those moments when I said, “That is so obvious, so intuitive, why didn’t I ever think of it?” Once you grasp the idea that for every action/event in your novel, you need to allow some time for your characters (and at the same time readers), to react emotionally, reflect on, and process what happened, it fundamentally changes how you write. For the better.

If you’d like to read a novel that does this well, try The Hit by David Baldacci (review).


Reel did not do the obvious…

She counted to three and slammed not the gas, but the brakes.
Smoke poured from her rear wheels as traffic veered around her.

Once Reel checks into a hotel, she takes stock.

For now, Reel continued to stare outside as the rain fell.
It was a gloomy day. It perfectly matched her life.
They had clearly won this round. She had to hope it would be their only victory against her.

Exercise:  Visualize an action scene that would fit your novel. Now, picture your protagonist taking a break to react, perhaps talking through what happened and how they feel about it with family, friends, or even their irritating colleague.

In a few days we will start to prepare the structure for the novel, then start a rough outline (only rough, you pantsers who panic at the thought of outlines). Plan to leave room for quiet time and reaction/reflection.


Visit our 30 Day Novel Prep Page for all the links.


#Amwriting October 5: Adding Secondary Characters

For today’s  NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) preparation post, let’s add secondary characters to our story.


How Many Secondary Characters?

Beginning novelists are often told to pare down the number of characters in their books. They are advised to combine characters or cut some out. As a result debut novels may have a more limited cast of characters than novels by experienced writers. However, after reading a bunch of bestsellers,  I’ve come to the conclusion that as long as you can introduce each person in a memorable way (so the reader doesn’t have to go back and re-read to figure out who they are), and each has a purpose, then the more the merrier.

Books that handled many secondary characters well:

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (review)

Easy Prey by John Sandford (review)

John Sandford creates many, many characters in this novel, including multiple victims, friends and relatives associated with the victims, suspects, police, sheriffs, assistant medical examiners, medical examiners, computer hacks who assist the police, etc. etc. The sheer number of characters is fascinating, especially the duplication. There isn’t one love interest, but three strong candidates and Lucas notices a couple of other women. There isn’t one initial victim, but two, and many more pile up. Lucas regularly reports to not one boss, but both the Chief of Police and the Mayor, who seem to travel in pairs.

Books that could have done better:

Murder in Pigalle by Cara Black (review)

Almost everyone in the [library book club] discussion group commented on how difficult it was to remember the cast of characters. I finally had to write down a list of names and their roles to keep them straight.

The bottom line:

Include as many secondary characters as you feel add to the story, but make each one stand out as an individual and make sure the reader knows who they are.

Secondary Character Roles

Like the protagonist and antagonist, secondary characters often fill expected roles. You may have heard of the sidekick, the love interest, the mentor, etc. TV Tropes has a list of characters and their tropes. Click through each for even more lists. The page for love interest is particularly illuminating.

Public domain image from Wikimedia

One of my favorites is the contagonist, who might appear to help the protagonist, but who is actually leading them astray. They don’t block the goal entirely, but merely delay it, which can be a useful character to include.

How do you figure out which characters you will need to create? Start to picture a few of the scenes in your story. Who is your main character talking to? Who do they encounter as they move toward their goal? Who supports them? Who gets in their way? Does the antagonist have a henchman who does his or her dirty work?  Does your main character have a spouse? A family?

Going back to John Smith from our earlier premise, we know he has an uncle who is the police chief, plus he will talk to other members of the police force at times.  The victim will need a name and backstory, as well as friends and family to interview. There might be witnesses. In a mystery, the reader expects suspects that turn out to be red herrings.  The list grows in a hurry.


Start writing down secondary character roles and figuring out names, ages, appearances, jobs, etc.

You may wonder how much time to invest in each one. My suggestion is to really develop those who have potential to have big roles. For everyone else, write down enough so you don’t mix them up half way through the novel.

There is a balance between developing secondary characters enough to be satisfying and realistic, and investing too much time on material that won’t add to your story. How much do you personally need to have sorted out in advance to put your character on the page effectively?  If you are under a time crunch, like when writing for NaNoWriMo, it pays to have the research and backstory done in advance.

Tip:  Many authors base their characters, particularly their secondary characters, loosely on people they have encountered in real life.


Visit our 30 Day Novel Prep Page for all the links.

#Amwriting October 4: Growing Your Story With Antagonists

Are you preparing for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) with us? Time to beef up your story premise by exploring the conflict and antagonist(s).

More on Premise

Remember the premise  in the first exercise?

When he’s called in to investigate a hit-and-run accident, expert consultant John Smith discovers the death is intentional. He must find out the victim’s identity before the murderer strikes again.

Let’s look at this another way, based on K.M. Weiland’s formula for developing a “Wow” premise.  We have the protagonist, John Smith, in a situation of investigating a hit-and-run-accident. His goal is the find out the victim’s identity, although it is implied that the ultimate goal is to stop the killer.

Now we need to make the premise more complex by adding antagonists. These are the person(s) or thing(s) that get in the way of the protagonist getting his/her/their goal. In the case above, the killer will be an antagonist whose goal is to prevent the protagonist from finding out the victim is. The two are in conflict, causing tension which makes the story more interesting and drives the plot.

Kinds of Conflict

Stories can feature many kinds of conflict. To explore the possibilities, let’s look at a relatable example.

Our protagonist, Melissa, has a goal to write 50,000 words in the month of November because she needs to complete a novel she has already sold or she’ll have to give the money back.

What can go wrong (prevent her from achieving her goal)?

  1. A freak storm knocks the power out for days.
  2. Her lovable, but noisy in-laws are forced to move in with her.
  3. Melissa’s inner critic takes over and she can’t write a word.
  4. Her computer hard drive crashes on the last day and she loses all her work.
  5. When her internet service is taken over by the city, the old internet provider sues and freezes service for everyone.

Each example above falls into a general category of conflict (names of categories vary depending on what reference you use).

  1. Person versus nature
  2. Person versus person
  3. Person versus self
  4. Person versus machine
  5. Person versus society

Sometimes the protagonist may encounter more than one kind of conflict, such as fighting with a villain (person versus person) while both are in the middle of a forest fire (person versus nature). To make Melissa’s story complex, have all those problems befall her.

The Writing Excuses Podcast has some helpful discussions on the types of conflict in fiction and how to incorporate conflict in your writing.

Have you figured out what type(s) of conflict will drive your story? The type of conflict will determine your choice of antagonist and vice versa.

Exercise:  Developing Character of Your Antagonist

If you have decided on a human antagonist, now is a good time to start developing their character. Even if the antagonist doesn’t show up on the page, he/she/they will shape the story in many ways. Having a complex and well-thought-out antagonist is important. Also, the protagonist and antagonist should influence and mirror each other, so develop each with the other in mind.

We already decided on the protagonist’s age, name, appearance, and profession. Now do the same for your antagonist. When you’ve finished, start filling out a character sketch (check this potentially useful Character Sketch Template) for both your antagonist and your protagonist.

Like with your protagonist, sometimes it can help to start with an archetype “stick figure”. Many resources exist, but for example The Page Unbound has a list of 16 villain archetypes. Remember that your antagonist doesn’t have to be a villain or pure evil, and in fact they shouldn’t be. Antagonists have many motivations and when they have done something wrong probably believe they made the best decision based on what they were faced with at the time.

Challenge:  See if you can figure out a way that your protagonist and antagonist can be connected somehow.

What’s your antagonist’s name?

Tomorrow:  Fleshing out the rest of the cast.


Visit our 30 Day Novel Prep Page for all the links.

#Amwriting October 3: Exploring Your Setting

The next step in our series about preparing for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is to consider your setting.


Why work on setting so early?

Some of you may be wondering why you should tackle setting so early in preparation. Isn’t it simply wallpaper behind the story?

Setting is a vital part of a novel. A good, concrete setting grounds the reader and can be a key element in driving the story. By evoking memories and feelings, it can influence the mood (think Hawaii versus Alcatraz.) You need to orient your readers to place and time right in the beginning of the book.

If the setting is from another era or a different world, such as for speculative fiction, fantasy, or historical fiction,  it will be critical to spend time worldbuilding before you put the first word on the page.



Start with brainstorming. Don’t forget to include time as well as place. Is the story going to be contemporary, historical or take place in the future? What year will your story be set in? How long does it last? Is all the action finished in 24 hours or 24 years? If your story idea feels like it is jelled, jot down a rough timeline.

Do you want to have your characters stay in one place or travel widely?  How are your characters going to react to the place? Do they love it or can’t wait to get away? How can the physical location add to the story? Can they do their job in that location?

Think about places you’ve lived, visited, or want to visit and jot them down. You are going to be living with the setting you choose for a long time if you write a novel, so pick one that you can be passionate about. It can help to choose a familiar time and place because you already know how it looks, smells, and sounds, but in reality, anything goes.


For contemporary novels, once you have an idea of place(s), investigate them. Look at maps and search the internet. Ideally, you should visit the location(s), but that isn’t as easy as it once was. For specific suggestions, see my previous post, Seven Awesome Internet Tools for Writing Realistic Settings.

If you are thinking of historical fiction, Anne R. Allen has tips for historical writers that will help get you started (thanks Shan).

Science fiction, speculative fiction, and fantasy can be more challenging. A resource that can help with worldbuilding is Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook (Revised and Expanded): The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction*. I recommend it not so much for the text — although it can give you some useful tips — but more for the incredibly imaginative illustrations that will be sure to jump start your creativity. See the cover, for example.

(*Amazon Affiliate Link)

If you a creating your own world, get familiar with some of the random place name generators. Mithril Mages has a bunch of name generators, including a Natural Terrain Feature Name GeneratorMuddles also has random name and place generators.

Tip:  Be sure to save the information you uncover. Make a list of links you visit, take screenshots of locations, save articles either as PDF or print or both.  You can save your research notes in a folder, in Scrivener,  or if you are going to use a three-ring binder, now is the time to begin organizing it. Start a tab for “setting.”

Write a Description

Before you finish for the day, write a brief description of your setting.

If you are stuck, try this helpful PDF mind map template for a descriptive essay about place from EslFlow.

What setting(s) did you choose?


I wish my novel could be set here, but it wouldn’t fit the story.

Tomorrow: The Antagonist – What or whom your protagonist is struggling with.


Visit our 30 Day Novel Prep Page for all the links.

#Amwriting October 2: Protagonist

Are you going to participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this year? If so,  now is the time to start developing your protagonist.


Characters are the “who” of the story. For today’s exercise you should decide who your protagonist is. You might also want to start thinking about who the narrator of the story will be (protagonist or not), and if you will need additional roles such as love interest, sidekick, antagonist, contagonist, etc. Not familiar with these terms? Hop on over to Dramatica for a full discussion of archetypal characters.

Keep your genre in mind while you start to develop your protagonist. For example, if you love speculative fiction, your protagonist may be a non-human animal, or perhaps a robot.

By the way, if your idea started with a setting — the where– rather than from a character, that is okay. Jot down all your ideas/feelings about your setting and we will develop those tomorrow.

The Goal:  A Memorable Protagonist

Let’s look at an example from Rex Stout’s classic Nero Wolfe detective series.

Nero Wolfe stands out as a memorable protagonist. Even though I haven’t read the books in some time, I can still describe him. He is a big man, overweight, which adds to his commanding physical presence. He is a genius, but also has quirks. For example, he’s lazy. He refuses to leave his house, and is able to make the witnesses and villains alike come to his office. He spends his afternoons tending orchids in the greenhouse on the roof. He has a private chef who cooks gourmet meals and a full time caretaker for the orchids, as well as an office assistant/detective named Archie Goodwin.

Although I’ll bet you don’t know a single person who lives like that, he’s still believable and so fascinating that we want to read more.

As an aside, Rex Stout’s series have an additional detail that makes them worthy of study.  While arguably the protagonist, Nero Wolfe is not the narrator. Instead his sidekick Archie Goodwin tells the story and acts as a stand in for the reader.


Your protagonist will likely start out as an archetype or trope, like the drawing of a stick figure. Next you can use certain techniques to add depth, eventually making her closer to a doll or mannequin. By the time you start your novel, your protagonist should give the impression of a real, complex person whose unique personality and quirks will guide you through the story.

There are probably as many techniques for getting to know your protagonist as there are writers. A popular one is to do an “character interview” or “character questionnaire,” essentially long lists of facts about your character, like what his favorite drink is or what her dog’s name is. Another touted technique for adding depth is using psychological tools to learn about personality, such as the enneagram, which can help find your hero’s fatal flaw(s).

Recently, a webinar speaker mentioned the Onion Theory of Character, which makes a lot of sense. The idea is that what is revealed about a person varies with who they interact with, like layers of an onion. For example, a causal observer, say a fellow passenger on a train, might only notice the character’s appearance (and the character would only notice their appearance). A first date will learn about slightly deeper things, like where a person went to school or what their job is. A husband or mother will know and can reveal much more intimate details.

Today we’re going to explore some of those surface details:  your protagonist’s name, age, appearance, and occupation. Later we’ll delve more deeply.

Name and Age

You should actually decide on your protagonist’s age first because that will determine their name. Names go in and out of popularity over the years. You wouldn’t expect an 18 year old to be named Mabel, for example.

In addition to age, you should consider country of origin and back story when picking a name. Some people agonize over name selection, but the truth is that you aren’t stuck with the first name you choose. With modern word processing, you can use the find/replace feature and change a character’s name throughout your entire manuscript in seconds.

If you want to get through this exercise quickly, you can even use a random name generator like Behind the Name. There are many others, some of which are genre specific.

Years ago a writing instructor of mine suggested using the obituaries for name ideas. Although it seems a bit weird, one advantage is that you can pick names appropriate for the generation your character comes from based on the age of the person who died. Also, the names reflect real world diversity.

If the obituaries aren’t for you, lists of baby names can also be a good resource.. They tend to include information about origins and meanings. Social Security has lists of popular baby names by decade.


Realistically you shouldn’t go on and on about your character’s appearance in the text because you need to give your reader some leeway for imagination. On the other hand, when you are writing, it can be helpful to have a basic description, and a photograph or two of the person you have in mind to refer back to so your protagonist’s hair or eye color don’t accidentally change half way through the novel. If your main character is a robot, then draw a detailed version or even consider building a 3D model.

Tip:   Do image searches and save the images that fit your idea of your protagonist. If you have Scrivener, you can load the images directly into your file. Otherwise, keep a folder on your computer.  Some people also create Pinterest boards, which can be kept secret if you want.


What your protagonist does for a living will reveal things about their character. Their profession will also dictate how much free time they have, their economic status, etc. Spend some time picking their employment. Also consider whether they are suited for the job or do they hate it? Is it holding them back from reaching their goal?

Try to think beyond the typical jobs, too. It is probably not a coincidence that Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum character is a bounty hunter. It was in the “seriously cool” category in this  list of 24 unique jobs.

Tomorrow:  Choosing a Setting


Visit our 30 Day Novel Prep Page for all the links.

#Amwriting October 1: Capture Your Novel Idea

Are you going to participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this year? If you haven’t heard of it before, that’s the challenge to write 50,000 words as a beginning or part of a novel during the month of November.  If you are interested, now is the time to get ready.


Why Prepare?

If you are planning to write a novel for NaNo, it is a good idea to start preparations in October — or even earlier. Why? If you:

  1. Set aside a time think about your project each and every day
  2. Organize and prepare the background materials each and every day
  3. Start a habit of writing each and every day

the momentum can help carry you through November to success.

October 1:  Capture Your Idea

I. Start by gathering your basic writing materials.

You will obviously need a word processing program of some sort. Many writers use Google Docs, Microsoft Word, or Scrivener. Take the time now to pick one and set it up. Figure out how you are going to back up your files as well.

Setting up Scrivener


Unless you are completely a tech addict, you will also want some sort of notebook. I put pen to paper when I’m starting a new novel as a place to do mind maps or brainstorm, to jot down those notes that come in the middle of the night or while I’m driving down the road, and to experiment with ideas when I’m stuck on a plot point. I use it to draw maps, buildings, etc. for settings, too.

Personally, I need a three-ring binder for my projects as well as a notebook. I use the binder to hold hard copies of research from newspapers or magazines, in addition to paper copies of the manuscript, if I print them.

Don’t spend too much time on this on the first day. Organize, put titles on your materials, and personalize or decorate as you go along. Save these tasks for the days when you need a mental break or as a reward after you’ve done good work.

II. Use your materials to write down your glimmer of an idea.

Now is the time to commit that idea you’ve been throwing around in your head onto the page.  Yes, now. Type or write the words, no matter how raw.

For fiction, try to include a rough idea for a protagonist, the event or person who started them on this path (inciting incident), what their goal is, and what the conflict is. You will also need an antagonist, but depending on your genre, you may or may not want to reveal them in the premise. For example, in a mystery you would never reveal the murderer in the premise, but in a romance you can reveal who is stopping the wedding.

If you don’t have an idea for your project, you might want to consult the NaNo Prep 101 Guide (sign in and look under resources). They show how to “borrow” a premise from a favorite novel, then tweak it to make it your own. If that doesn’t appeal, you can be adventurous and type “random plot generator” into your favorite search engine. There many different kinds. Some are specific to genre and others are general, like this one at Writing Exercises for example. Caveat:  you should probably set a timer beforehand so you don’t go down a rabbit hole.

Once you have jotted down some words, shape them into a rough premise. Think of it as the baby version of the book blurb that entices readers on the back of the book. Here’s a made up one:

When he’s called in to investigate a hit-and-run accident, expert consultant John Smith discovers the death is intentional.  He must find out the victim’s identity before the murderer strikes again.

If you need help, K.M. Weiland has a post about finding your premise. (We’ll use her 6-Must Have Elements of a “Wow” Story Premise post to tweak it later when we are ready to start an outline.)

How does your premise look? If you want to make it fresher, try a mind map or other visual aid to help mix things up.


See how intentionally mixing things up led to the idea it is a horse and buggy instead of a car that is involved in the accident?  That takes the story in a novel direction.

If you have a premise you’d like to share or tweak, be sure and leave it in the comments.

Up next:  Developing Your Protagonist


Visit our 30 Day Novel Prep Page for all the links.


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