Thursday, December 1

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, December 01, 2016 2 comments
Photo by  jackileigh at
NaNoWriMonth has wrapped up, a time when many writers challenge themselves to write 50,000 words in 30 days. On question that often pops up on Twitter near the end of November is whether "winning" NaNo (hitting the 50K goal) means you have a complete book.

Unless you write middle grade fiction (ages 8-12) or novellas, then likely, no you do not. You have either a very bloated beginning of a story, or you have a skeleton of a story that hits all the plot points you outlined, but lacks the musculature to stand on its own.

I've addressed a number of issues related to "overwriting" in a series of posts, so I will simply link them here:  (Part 1) Reining in tangents, (Part 2) Reducing grammatical bloat, (Part 3) Streamlining dialogue, (Part 4) Finding and eliminating "purple prose."

Today I'm going to begin a new series to address the second issue--the under-developed story, and how to begin better developing it.

Character underdevelopment

This is probably the chief problem with quickly written pieces--the characters don't yet feel real. The author hasn't yet spent enough time with them to have developed strong instincts about when they would impulsively act (and how) and when they'd pause and reflect (and upon what), The good news is, you can always fix this in revision. In fact, it very well may be best to wait until draft 2 to go deeper with your characters. Having the bones of the plot in place is like having a musical score calling for improvisation--you know the tempo and key, so you have some framework for riffing.

Even in published books,  I've seen some particular character under-development sins that need to be addressed in revision. If you want your NaNo project to succeed, here are some key characterization areas to tackle in your next draft.

Inner world

In underwritten stories, the character often has only one backstory wound that gets hammered on ad nauseum as the root of every problem. In revision, seek to develop other weaknesses, overreaching strengths, driving needs. You must connect with this inner world of your character in order to know what motivates their actions, and thus make their actions align with who they are and who they will become. I recommend Nancy Kress's Dynamic Characters as a helpful resource to do this. I also have a lengthy character questionnaire that can help you better develop your characters' inner worlds. (My  book 1001 Evocative Prompts for Fiction Writers has nearly double this number of character development questions.)

Many underwritten stories focus only on a surface problem--some dilemma that gets the plot going-- and never address what Les Edgerton in Hooked calls a "story-worthy problem." By that he means the deeper psychological need that is challenged by the surface problem. For example, the need to feel competent. Worthy of love. Generous rather than grasping, or confident instead of fearful.

The story-worthy problem adds emotional stakes to your work, so that what happens to your characters and the decisions they make actually changes them deeply. If you only work on the level of surface problem, you'll have a surface story. For more on emotional arcs, see "Don't forget the other journey, the other arc."

Keep in mind that inner drives, when matched well with the surface problem, will make your story far more compelling. It's somewhat an issue of putting the right character in a situation, and letting their inner world crash up against or be goaded by the surface problem. For more on this match-up, see "Compelling compulsions."


It takes time to get to know someone's speech patterns well enough to, say, predict their responses on quizzes or surveys. But to write convincing dialogue and inner monologues, you must know this about your character.

Character voice has three main elements:

Diction: How do the characters say what they say? This will reflect their levels of education, local dialect and to a degree their temperament.

Associations: These “tip of the mind” thoughts tell a tremendous amount about a person in just a few words. They can be a shorthand way of showing what kind of past experiences the character has gone through, what he values, and what forms of culture shape him. (See also "An Iceberg Approach to Demonstrating Character.")

Attitudes: These are value judgments made about elements of the world around us--what is good or bad, valuable or worthless. Attitudes most often come out when a character is confronted with something new, unusual or unexpected.

For more on character voice, see my guest post for C.M. Keller, "Elements of Voice."

Choices and changes

Related to those inner drives I'd mentioned above is how a character makes choices, how he or she behaves and reacts to certain events. In other words, the way character drives plot.

Choices must make sense to who a character is, both his temperament and aspirations, as well as his weaknesses and wounds. Too often, underwritten stories neglect to weave the character's emotional and moral inner world into the plot. Whenever your plot calls for your character to make a decision, consider how you can make implicit (through subtle hints) or explicit (in thought or speech) how s/he arrived at the decision based on upholding values, avoiding feared things, or succumbing to weaknesses.

Choices are also informed by the character's capacity. You will have a Mary Sue/Gary Stu if characters choose only to do what comes easily, and a "too stupid to live" character if his/her choices are illogical and go against the law of self-preservation for no reason (versus choosing to do something risky to help others  live and thrive). For more on capacity, see "A key question to keep character and plot in synch."

Change can often happen too quickly in an underwritten manuscript. It's helpful to become acquainted with some basic aspects of psychology to write convincing change.

Change involves replacing one behavior or habit with another one.

One commits to change when staying the same becomes uncomfortable and when those with whom we have important relationships require it.

Willpower alone is usually inadequate for lasting change to happen. Rituals and community support are essential, as has been shown with 12-step programs.

Coming to a moment of realization, or "epiphany" is not enough to be convincing to readers; that never creates change in real life. Characters must go on to test and perfect what they've learned through some representative action at the story's end. See "Beyond closure: the key to creating satisfying story endings."

For more on creating convincing character change, see "Thoughts on motivation and change arcs."

Reactions and Pacing

This is one of the subtler aspects of characterization and storytelling--knowing when and how to have characters react to story events. When would they speak? What thoughts and feelings would be provoked by the event, and how would this person express them--in a bodily sensation, a thought, or a combination?

Underwritten stories almost always skip these moments altogether in order to keep a grip on the main plot thread. So in revision, you must step back and consider when your characters would naturally react, and at what length. The development work you did in the inner world and voice sections above should be a guide. And when anything new comes at your character, ask this essential question as an emotional pulse-check.

Underwritten stories also tend to have too-small emotional arcs. You begin with the character too far along in an arc or skip over steps, causing jumping conflict. I call this "the teaspoon problem" after Hermione Granger's comment that Ron Weasley has "the emotional range of a teaspoon." For more on expanding the range of your emotional arcs, see "Emotional arcs: the teaspoon problem."

If your characters are on the run, you must include scenes in which they rest, recuperate, and consider their ongoing strategy. No one believably goes and goes like the Energizer Bunny. Humans have human weaknesses. Capitalize on them in these moments to make your heroic characters relatable. They still get stiff muscles and hunger pangs, still need bloody wounds to be re-dressed, still need a few hours of sleep to avoid sleep-deprivation psychosis.

Which of these areas do you struggle with most?


  1. Great advice. My weakest areas are pacing and sustaining conflict. I'm also pretty bad at description, so there is always work for me to do after that first draft!! And the 2nd and 3rd ones as well :)

  2. Thanks, Jemi. I was planning to talk about conflict and juggling characters in another post, thickening thin plots in another, and finally going lusher with description. Stay tuned!