~by Jill Williamson
Years ago, my friend Stephanie Morrill, founder of www.GoTeenWriters.com, wrote a blog post in which she explained her process of assigning her main characters a word that summed up what they believed about themselves. For example, her main character’s word was “invisible,” and the antagonist’s was “second best.” These words enabled Stephanie to put her characters into situations where they would feel exactly like that word. It also gave her characters something to overcome throughout the course of the story as her characters discovered the lie and changed.
I loved this exercise and have used it ever since. Except I take it one step further. Since I tend to write series, I can’t have my characters doing all their growing in the first book. So I come up with a set of three words for each of my main characters. This way they can grow some—or regress—in each story.
I’ll use my novel King’s Folly for an example. Wilek is the protagonist of Book One. My first word for him is “conflicted.” He knows what is right and 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.”
One of my antagonists is Charlon. Her first word is “victim.” She is afraid of so many things, and when she is given the opportunity to overcome her fear and get strong by using magic, she jumps at the chance. But she gets greedy. The 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.” She is trapped by her own ambition.
Do you see the progression? Start with a word that has a negative connotation and brainstorm ways your character might rise above that label. 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. Let’s try it with Stephanie’s word “invisible.”
Invisible could lead to: celebrity, hero, popular, antihero, infamous, content, leader, boss, favorite, accomplished, workaholic, 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. This needs to get your character to where you want him in the end of the story (or series). Take into account both previous words that encompass the journey your character has 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? A lot depends on the story you’re telling and the journey you want your character to go on.
This doesn’t have to apply to a series. You could choose three words per book, to help you pinpoint your character’s growth and arc throughout the story. There are no rules here. Play with it and see what works.
I’m looking forward to hanging out with a bunch of teenage writers at the Fall OCW one-day conference. Send me teens, everyone. We’re going to have a good time.
Jill Williamson writes fantasy and science fiction for teens and adults. She is the award-winning author of 19 books, including By Darkness Hid, Replication, Captives, and King’s Folly. Jill received Christy Awards for By Darkness Hid and To Darkness Fled (Blood of the Kings series Books 1 and 2) and the Cascade Award for The New Recruit. She loves teaching about writing, which she does weekly at www.GoTeenWriters.com, a site Writer’s Digest named one of the “101 Best Websites for Writers.”
Jill will teach a special track for teen writers at the OCW Fall One-Day Conference, October 21 at Rolling Hills Community Church in Portland. Check here for details about the schedule, workshops and how to register.