Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Character Growth Words

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, 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.

50 comments:

  1. That is such a great idea! I always summed up my characters in three words, just basically what they were. I never thought of doing two words that the character sees themselves as. I need to go try it now! I know for my main character of my current book it would probably be, Passionate Protector.

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  2. wow, this is awesome! :D
    I'm currently stuck on my characters, especially the main character, he always seems the most
    boring and empty despite being far from perfect.

    for one of my characters:
    afraid (of himself, knowing he has a cruel streak he tries to hide and suppress, afraid he'll lose control and accidentally hurt his friends), isolation (realising he has to face his dark
    side on his own he sets out on a journey to his inner depth, to the core and origin of his cruel streak
    to understand and heal), appreciation. :)

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  3. This is the best exercise I've ever had the pleasure of chancing. Dorlin Hull, the MC of the Assassin's Mercy, would be "bitter". His tragic past and the master he hates--and yet owes--has filled him with bitter anger and vengeance. Dorlin has been trained by the Emperor as an assassin, and one night on a mission he is ambushed by Servus Strife and saved by a supposed "uncle", Borifas, and plots to destroy his rival once and for all. Strife has recently resurfaced after disappearing, presumed dead, and played a role in killing Hull's parents. A young Dorlin defeated him after he was branded traitor for illegal shipping to the elves on the black market five years ago. Borifas introduces him to Gren'eldorf, a kind wizard and old Flameweaver, and they plot to ambush Strife in a ruined village. But this accidently is the same village where the Emperor killed Dorlin's parents when he was a baby, and Dorlin discovers deadly proof that the Emperor killed them and didn't try to help them, as he had told him. After this, Dorlin is "broken".
    See what I did? Dorlin gets an opportunity to kill one of the participants of his parents arson, and he snatches it in an attempt to satisfy that bitter wrath inside of him. After this, the wizard reveals to him his Flameweaver heritage, and Dorlin must face him fear of fire. Deciphering the Emperor's true plan from a scroll he found that proved the murder his master committed, Hull realizes that his master wants a key to Asgard that was buried in the time stream, and to access it, the Emperor needs to time travel. The guardians of the key were Dorlin's parents, and their son would have the powers of both humans and elves (for his father was human and his mother was an elf) but when he killed them, the key was lost, so know he wants to go back in time to get it, and then kill his parents again--this time, before Dorlin was born. So that no one can stop him. Ever.

    In the dénouement, Dorlin realizes that he finally has freed himself from his master, the Emperor, and also patched his bitterness by making valuable companions, and friends, something he never would have dreamed off. Thus he is, at last, "free".

    So, in short, in attempt to escape his bitterness, Dorlin searched for the truth and it left him broken. But he faced his fears and his master, and attained freedom.

    Dear. Look how long I've been ranting on. Sorry for the long comment. Anyway, great post :).

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    1. Seriously, *longest comment ever.* Proof how I can talk all day about my book if given a chance :). LOL

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    2. We all usually can, Jonathan! Good job on the words. Sounds perfect. :-)

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    3. Wow, yeah Jonathan, that is really cool! I like ranting too, don't worry. Assassins.... ahahahahah! I love incorporating those. Story sounds super cool! :-)

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  4. This is a cool idea. I shall give it a try:
    Gwen- Loner (at the start of the series), Protector, Leader (current stage, and her responsibilities will just keep growing to the point where she wishes she could go back to being a loner).
    She possibly needs another word or two, but I can't see that far into the stories.

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  5. Awesome! I never thought about doing it this way. My MC's word would be Monster.

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  6. My MC starts out feeling dispised. I'll have to think more about how that changes.

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  7. In my first book my MC's word is Lonely, is this book (the second book) it is probably Fear. In the third book I think it will be Confidence.

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  8. Jill, this is so brilliant! I love this idea! (We need to add this to our OYAN class for June.)

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    1. KK. (Do we know what we're teaching in June?)

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  9. What would be the extreme of frustration over not being big and strong enough to champion justice?

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    1. Ooh, that's a good one. I picture someone being rash in that situation, making choices and doing things without thinking because they want to be that champion. Your character sounds interesting with just those two!

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    2. Rash is good. Could be lots of things, depending on your character. Small, weak, powerless, frustrated, resentful, embittered...

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  10. I really need to do this for my antagonist, as I don't understand her very well yet. But my protagonist's word in the first book would definitely be "worthless."

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    1. Nice, Alyssa. Yes, this really helps me understand my other characters better.

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  11. For my fantasy: The FMC would be: unimportant, maybe? Either unimportant, or something along those lines: unneeded, invisible, lonely, etc.

    For a new book that I'm working on: Her dad (antagonist): victim. Her (protagonist): scared, really.

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  12. Wow, this is a great exercise!! In the beginning, my MC's word would be "unloved", but at the end it would be "cared for". Thank you, Mrs. Williamson!

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  13. Love this post! Sounds like an awesome exercise. Word associations definitely help me, and it's a great way to ensure that you're intentional about showing how your character feels "broken" (or whatever your word is) without outright saying it.

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  14. I'm going to try this idea out. It sounds really great! My MC's word would be overlooked, and then head into uncertain, and finally believer. Thank you.

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  15. Ooh, this is such a useful idea. I think for my upcoming WIP, my main character goes from being insecure to determined to empowered. There is a problem in the world she lives in, but no one will fix it, so she must do it herself. However, she is too insecure. When she finally decides that she will try to fix the problem, she becomes determined, and when she succeeds, she is empowered. I know I'm being really vague here, but I'm still plotting this novel.

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  16. This is really good idea, thanks for the post!

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  17. My current MC's word progression is probably... helpless (he's dragged from one thing to another with very little control over the situation), reckless (his attempts to change feeling helpless get him in a lot of trouble), to finally determined.

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  18. When I volunteered at the Renaissance Fair a couple years ago, on of the exercises they had us do was find some words that described our main character, I've just been thinking about how this could relate to writing. :) I think my MC's word would be Broken... thank you for the post, Jill! :)

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  19. I think my MC starts out as Arrogant, and goes on to Unsure, and I think that he will end up as Wise or something like that. I hadn't thought about it until now, but this is a really good way to figure out character development. Thanks so much!

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    1. Sounds like a great progression, Elizabeth. :-)

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  20. This is such a good idea! For a WIP I am working on my words would probably be worthless (She feels that way), then at the end it would probably be achiever or something.

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  21. Book 1: Unsure
    Book 2: Broken, Searching
    Book 3: Resolute

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  22. What an awesome concept, Jill (and Stephanie!). I'll have to think about this a bit, but I can definitely see myself applying it to my stories. And I love that it works with the Rule of 3, which is so important to western stories. :)

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  23. This is an amazing post! I will do this for every book now!
    I've only got one book for my MC, but I think his words would be "Insignificant, Shame-filled, and Alone" at the beginning, then "Cherished, Befriended, and Free" at the end.


    Alexa S. Winters
    http://thessalexa.blogspot.com/

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  24. My protagonist/antagonist #1, Mara, would be "victim > justice seeker > survivor." Another middle word could be "avenger" but I think she views it more as justice than revenge.
    My antagonist/protagonist #2, Ace, would be "perfect > guilty > peaceful."
    Another thing I'd like to note is that I think two words should usually be used for a single book, since a character should change in a good novel from beginning to end. My progressions are for only two books, where the middle word describes their opinion at the end of book #1 and the beginning of book #2.

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