Nano Prep #3: Character, POV, and Setting

Welcome back to our month-long prep for national novel writing month in which I invite you to half-ass NaNoWriMo with me. In week one we talked about coming up with a story idea , and last week we discussed structure . This week’s prep covers three more elements of story building: Character, Point of View, and Setting. The prep work we do this week will help us write more quickly when we begin drafting our stories in November.

Decision #1: Which Point of View Will You Use?

Think of point of view (POV) as the camera you use when telling a story. You might tell your story from inside one character’s head, using sentences like “I raced down the hall.” If so, that’s called first-person perspective. It’s a fun way to tell a story because the tale unfolds like you are reading someone’s diary. But there’s a big limiting factor. You can’t tell the reader things that your main character doesn’t know! We can only see what the POV character sees, which is why it’s a popular choice for murder mysteries.

So perhaps you’d like to describe events from outside your main character’s head? Your sentences will read more like this: “Erin raced down the hall.” This is third-person perspective. We’re not inside Erin’s head the whole time, but we’re able to follow her closely. If we tell the story from Erin’s perspective, using a third-person POV, that’s called third-person limited. But that’s not our only option here. If we’re careful not to confuse our readers, we can also switch our camera between different characters in third-person. We could write one chapter from Erin’s point of view, then another chapter from her adversary’s point of view, for example. This is helpful when we’re following different groups of people, or when we want to build suspense by showing what the bad guys are up to.

Tip: If you’re using third person to tell the story through the eyes of multiple characters, keep the number of POV characters limited. Juggling a bunch of POV characters is difficult to do, and too many camera angles may alienate readers who get invested in one character only to have you hop into someone else’s head.

Lastly, we have Omniscient point of view. Common in epic fantasy, omniscient POV is where there is a narrator who knows all things, and they are telling us the story. Omniscient point of view pulls the camera way out and provides a panoramic view of events across different groups of people, places, and even different points in time.

A quick note about tense: We also get to choose whether we will write our story in past tense or present tense. Present tense is less common, but it’s become more prevalent in YA novels and some thrillers. Most novels will be written in past tense, telling us what happened, not what is happening. If you’re curious about what effective present tense looks like, check out The Hunger Games trilogy.

So your first decision for the week is this: what POV will you write in? If you aren’t sure, it’s smart to follow the conventions of your chosen genre. Murder mysteries are all past tense, for example, and can be told in either first person or third. If it helps, pull a few books from your preferred genre off the shelf and flip through the pages. What point of view do they use? Emulating others is a fine place to start.

Decision #2: Who Are My Characters?

For each of your primary characters, I’ll suggest that you fill out a quick character sheet that summarizes important facts about them. Here’s an example of what goes into a character sheet, but you can include any categories you like:

Family Situation/Important Relationships:
Nationality/Group Membership:
Positive Traits:
How they Respond to Stress:

Tip: Don’t worry if your characters feel “flat on the page” at this point, because if you are anything like me, you’ll get to know your characters as you write them. You’ll be writing a scene and their personalities will come busting out, surprising you. But it definitely helps to have some of the basics ironed out, like names, appearance, and a few personality traits. This will keep your words flowing instead of stopping you up every time you need to come up with a name. This also helps when you need to remember a fact mid-story. Checking a character sheet is easier than paging through a hundred pages of text to make sure you didn’t change someone’s name or hair color mid-book.

Some writers also add a stock photo or celebrity photo to their character sheets, “casting the character” to make it easier to describe them when the moment comes. If that helps you out, go for it! Also, some writers “get into the zone” by doing some freewriting (journaling) from the perspective of their main character. I’ve done that a time or two, but usually I just dive into the story itself and let the characters show up.

Tip: Need help coming up with character names? Check out this generator and popular names in the USA by decade. The latter is helpful when you want to name characters via their age. A 30 year old might be a Jessica, and a 50 year old might be a Heather, for example.

Decision #3: What are my Major Settings?

Lastly, it can help things along during NaNoWriMo if you know what your major settings are. Will your scenes take place in an office? A mall? A spaceship? I like to pull photographs and illustrations of settings I might use off the web and stick them in a research folder. I don’t spend a lot of time on this, but that way when I want to describe a room or setting I can pull up a photo and use it as a reference. Wikipedia is a good resource for snagging details about different cities.

That’s it! This week’s work will help you hit the ground running once Nano begins. We’ve got two more posts in this Nano prep series. Next week I’ll cover outlining, an optional step, and in our final week we’ll discuss workspace, time management, and mindset.

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