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  • Holly Brunnbauer

How to plan a novel: Part 1 - Character

Updated: Aug 31, 2023

I spent a month planning my next adult rom-com novel. Yes, an entire month.


What the heck was I doing the whole time?


Pantsers & plotters, gather 'round.


I’m happy to share my process, but under no circumstance am I saying you should approach it the same way. You do you.


To get bang for your buck, I’ll break this topic into two blog posts:

Part 1 - Character

Part 2 - Plot


How to plan a novel: Part 1 - Character

STARTING



How do I like to start?

  • With a spark of an idea and the good sense to write it down.

  • Create a ‘Brain Dump’ Google Doc specifically for when inspo hits (usually in the shower or at 2:14 AM). All big, messy, makes-no-f**king-sense thoughts go here. Anything is possible in brain dump land.

Then I begin with character before plot.


Why?


Because Anna who grew up on a farm in a small town and is community-minded is going to approach situations differently than Anna from the city who was raised in foster care and has a survive-at-all-costs mentality.


Also, readers generally connect with characters, not plots.


MAIN CHARACTER PROFILE



Because I write romance, I create an in-depth character profile for my:

  • Protagonist

  • Love interest


My Main Character profile includes:

  • Name

  • Status Quo

  • Background

  • Physical characteristics

  • Style

  • Mannerisms & quirks

  • Likes & dislikes

  • Personality traits

  • Story Point

  • Goals, stakes & obstacles

  • The character’s journey


Where possible, I like to use a visual representation of who they are; that’s how my brain works. Also, I’m a sucker for aesthetics and procrastinating on Canva.


Main Character Profile - Created by Holly Brunnbauer
Main Character Profile

Shall we go a little deeper?


Here's a breakdown with resource recommendations & tips.


NAME

This one’s self-explanatory but also includes nicknames, pet names or alter egos.


STATUS QUO

Where is your character at in life when the reader first meets them?


Example: Age, career, relationship status, financial situation, living arrangement, education achievements, political views, close friends and family.


BACKGROUND

You don’t have to write their entire life story (unless it’s helpful). I like to pick a few defining moments related to significant relationships and their fears/wounds.


Example: Death of a parent, horrible break-up, childhood trauma.


Basically, what does your reader need to know about the character that explains who they are and how they came to be that way?


PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS

Describe how they look.


Example: Hair & eye colour, height, body shape, eyebrows, nails, voice, tattoos, scars, birthmarks, piercings etc.


Tip: If you’re a visual person like me, pretend you're casting real-life people for the film adaptation.


Protagnoist profile - Physcial characteristics - Created by Holly Brunnbauer
Main Character Profile - Physical Characteristics

STYLE

How does your character typically dress?

Style their hair?

Accessorise?

Do they have a particular item they’re fond of? Is there a story to this?


Tip: How your character presents themselves to the world, speaks volumes about their personality and lifestyle. Don't tell me your character was born into wealth, show me.


Example: David who struts around in a tailored suit that’s always iron-pressed and checks the time on his Cartier watch will be perceived differently to a David who wears mud-splattered cargo pants, and a football guernsey and uses a velcro wallet.


Main Character Profile - Style - Created by Holly Brunnbauer
Main Character Profile - Style

MANNERISMS & QUIRKS

What does your character do or say that is uniquely them?


Example: Let’s look at the show Ted Lasso (because it’s awesome):


Ted Lasso: Moves like an excited puppy, makes terrible puns and will break into a monologue full of life lessons at the drop of a hat.


Roy Kent: Strides like the Terminator, swears like a sailor and grunts like Lurch.


Nate Shelley: Mumbles and fidgets a lot. Spits at his reflection to muster courage.


Dani Rojas: Childlike energy and often responds with the catchphrase, ‘Football is life’.


LIKES & DISLIKES

List all the things your character likes/dislikes, but only if you can explain why.


Example: Food, music, sports, hobbies, people, books, shows, animals, colours etc.


Tip: To create a complex character, have some of these contradict one another. E.g. Graham loves travel shows but hates leaving his house. Petra enjoys reading sports romance novels but won't date footballers.


Knowing their likes and dislikes also helps with scene setting. E.g. Place them in an environment that makes them uncomfortable and let the carnage unfold. Muhahaha.


Main Character Profile - Likes & Dislikes - Created by Holly Brunnbauer
Main Character Profile - Likes & Dislikes

PERSONALITY TRAITS

I like to list the character’s personality traits as virtues and flaws. Virtue means the good side of that trait and flaw is when they lean too much in the other direction. People aren’t good or evil; we slide along a scale depending on a range of factors.


Example: Nathan is charismatic (virtue), but he can also be manipulative (flaw). Nathan is brave (virtue), but he can also be reckless (flaw).


Tip: I also list their archetype, star sign and love language in this section. If you’re stuck on creating a personality profile, they're a good source of inspo.


STORY POINT

What does the character need to learn by unlearning their internal obstacle?


As the name suggests, it’s literally the entire point of your story. Don't let this be an afterthought. Retrofitting it can be a pain in the backside. Believe me, I know ... shudders.

Tip: To learn and understand Story Point + Goals, Stakes & Obstacles, I highly recommend you complete Golden May’s 7-DAY FREE EMAIL COURSE -The MAGIC of Character Arcs and listen to their Story Magic podcast - Episode 20: Internal goals give characters dimension.


GOALS, STAKES & OBSTACLES

All main characters have external and internal goals, stakes & obstacles. Some writers refer to them as Goals, Motivations and Conflict. Same/same-ish.


If you’re writing romance, the love interests usually have conflicting ones. For example - He’s never had a serious relationship and is ready to settle down and she’s sworn off relationships forever and believes all men cheat. This is what creates delicious conflict and keeps the reader in a will they/won’t they chokehold.


I’m going to give you a basic rundown of these concepts, but as I stated above, Golden May is your go-to guru on this topic.


External Goal: What do they think they want?

External Stake: What do they think will happen if they don’t achieve their goal?

External Obstacle: What do they think is standing in their way of achieving their goal?


Internal Goal: What do they really want that they believe their external goal will give them?

Internal Stake: What will it really cost them if they don’t get it?

Internal Obstacle: What false belief is preventing them from achieving their internal goal?


THE CHARACTER'S JOURNEY

Write a one-page summary of your character’s journey. This shows how the character evolves throughout the story. It's a nifty cheat sheet to refer to when drafting.


Paragraph 1: Where is your character at in life when the reader first meets them (status quo) and what turns their world upside down (inciting incident)?


Paragraph 2: How does your character face this new challenge and what gets in their way (conflict)?


Paragraph 3: What action does your character take to overcome this and what are the consequences (resolution)? What have they learned since the start of the story (change)?



SUPPORTING CAST



What about the remaining characters?


Yes, they’re important, but you don’t want them stealing the show, do you?


Instead of a full-blown character analysis, I create a mini-profile. It's a condensed version of the above.


The main thing to know is what role they play in supporting the protagonist.


Do they:

  • prevent the protagonist from achieving their goal? (Hinder)

  • offer support that enables the protagonist to achieve their goal? (Support)

  • help them grow into the person they need to be in order to overcome their internal obstacle? (Change)


Tip: You don’t need three people that hinder, four that support and five that change the protagonist. Generally, one character per role is plenty. Kill the rest or downgrade them to minor character status.


Generally speaking (if you haven't noticed by now, I write generally because I don't want any pitch-fork-wielding writers coming at me with 'I don't want my story to follow a formula, yadda, yadda, yadda ...') the antagonist hinders, the sidekick supports and the mentor changes the protagonist. But of course, there are no rules and you can do a switcharoo or have characters swing between roles.


CONGRATS



You’re now ready to create characters that’ll consume your every thought and make you hear voices (or is that just me)?


If you found this useful, share it far & wide in your newsletter or link to it on socials and tag me (@hollybrunnbauer) so I can thank you. Cheers!


WHAT'S NEXT?




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