Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or on her author website.
At the One Year Adventure Novel Summer Workshop two summers ago, Stephanie and I co-taught a class on editing. In that class, Stephanie shared that one of her tips for character building was to assign her main characters a word that summed up what they believed about themselves. If I remember rightly, her main character's word was "invisible." The antagonist's word was "second best." These words are great because they enabled Stephanie to put her characters into situations where they would feel exactly like that word. And it also gave her something to work towards as her characters overcame that word by growing and learning it was a lie all along.
I loved this exercise so much that I've used it ever since. But on the character sheets for my most recent project (King's Folly), I took it one step further. Since this is the first book in a trilogy, these characters need to grow in each book. So I decided to come up with a set of three words for each of my main characters. That way they grow in book one, but still have growing to do in book two, etc.
I haven't figured out all three words for everyone yet, since I've only written the first book, but I do know some of them. Here are two examples of how this might look.
Wilek is my protagonist. My first word for him is conflicted. He knows what is right, he wants to do it, but he doesn't know how. He makes small steps forward, only to get knocked back time and again. But he will rise up and find his way, which will give him so much confidence that his second word is certain. This new belief will permeate everything he does to the point of legalism. And that will lead him to his third word, humbled.
My second character is Charlon. She is one of my antagonists. Her first word is victim. She is afraid of so much. But she is given the opportunity to overcome her fear, to get strong. She gets greedy. The idea of power is intoxicating and she wants to become master, which is her second word. She will rule, but it will be too much for her, and it will lead to her to her third word, trapped.
Do you see the progression? Start out with a word that has a negative connotation. Then brainstorm ways your character might rise above that situation. Think it through and write down all the words that come to you. They might be complete opposites or extremes of the word you started with. For an example, let's use Stephanie's word "invisible."
Invisible could lead to: celebrity, hero, popular, antihero, infamous, content, leader, boss, favorite, accomplished, work-a-holic, etc.
Many of those words could be good things. But if you want your character to have a third growth area, he will have to take that second word to an extreme. So, say you chose invisible leading to hero, it could be that people get sick of his ego---or one important person in his life hates that he's out saving the day and is never there for her or his family or friends (think Will Stronghold from Sky High).
Now you're ready to brainstorm your third word, and this needs to get your character to where you want him in the end of the story (or series). Your third word needs to take into account both previous words, which encompass the journey he's been on so far. Maybe he needs a happy medium between the two words. Maybe he went too far with word number two, overcompensating for all of the negative emotions that came from that first word.
So if your first word was invisible, second word was hero, your third might be: content, average, healthy, loved, accepted, team leader, friend, etc.
See how that works? Obviously, a lot depends on the story you're telling and the journey you want your character to go on.
Also, this doesn't have to apply to a trilogy. You could choose three words per book, if you wanted to show a progression of growth. Or, if you were writing a longer series, this exercise could be prolonged. It would take careful planning, but you could come up with a different word for each book. There are no rules here. Play with it and see what works.
Can you think of a word or a progression of words for one of your characters? Share in the comments.