Posted On August 12, 2015 by Print This Post

A Recipe for Nanowrimo: Plan Your Characters and Improvise Your Plot by Roz Morris

Are you joining in on the craziness that’s called Nanowrimo? If so, you’re going to want to read Roz Morris’s post before you dive headfirst into the fun!

IMG_2611Are you planning to take part in National Novel-Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)? Briefly, it’s a worldwide online event where thousands of writers buckle down and steam through a novel. The nominal goal is 50,000 words in the 30 days of November – which might be a whole novel or a good chunk of one. Whichever, it’s a great way to sprint into a first draft because you’ve got a support team of other writers cheering you on, sharing their goals and buddying up to drag you over the finish line. If you’re a first-timer, NaNoWriMo is a great way to have a go and surprise yourself. And many seasoned writers use it as a way to get their first drafts motoring.

November? But Roz, we’re in August.

So, the start date is November and I’m asking you to think about it now? One of the keys to success is preparation. Although you’re not allowed to start the draft until NaNoWriMo month, you can plan beforehand. Research, plot notes and story summaries are all permitted – and serious contenders will be limbering up right now.

3nynsOr perhaps planning is the last thing you want to do. Maybe you’re the kind of writer who likes to sit down on day 1, summon the muse and channel the voices. Let the novel gush into your head and onto the keys.

Whichever way you work, there’s one kind of planning that will help you steer a steady course – AND write with your gut instincts.

Plan your characters

Indeed, if I had to choose whether to outline plot or characters in detail, I’d spend the time on creating the characters. Why?

Once I know who my fictional people are, they start acting, talking and steering the show – merely by being themselves. This streamlines the writing process enormously, helps you write in a natural flow. It’s especially useful for project like NaNoWriMo, where you want to get your wordcount done – but still have fun.

Here’s what you need.

Main characters

Work out their central problem The story will come from this. What do they want to achieve or prevent? What makes this problem desperate and ultimately unavoidable? How much of it comes from their personality or life situation? Is it something they have been suppressing or muddling along with? Perhaps they don’t admit to it, because that would open a box they don’t want to look in. The problem might be obviously significant, such as losing a job or discovering a murder. Or it might be apparently trivial – such as buying a puppy that turns nasty or forces the character to face up to responsibility. Whichever it is – whether solving a murder or wrangling with puppy ownership – it will be a big deal for them; and thus will be a landmark episode in their life.

How this generates the plot Devise two scenes. Your climax – the horrible moment near the end where the character confronts the thing they want to avoid. And a scene you can put in early that shows the reader they dread this.

The climax confrontation might be much deeper than the early scene suggests and therefore address a more fundamental problem. These fundamental problems come from a character’s deep needs. So, if your MC is trying to solve a murder, they might ultimately discover that the murderer was their own husband. This might prove that she never really knew him – something she’d always been denying or laughing off. You can still have the plot need – to catch a killer. But the deeper arc that makes it such a landmark will have come from the character’s innermost life.


If you want, you can stop planning there. But if you prefer to build a skeleton story, work out the steps between those points. Especially, concentrate on the ways the characters try to avoid or evade this worst-case scenario. Make those escapades create complications and ensnare them further, taking them down twisted alleyways, so that it seems the universe is conspiring, in sidelong ways, to throw them to that final confrontation.

Add other character details Once you have this core, fill in other details. Early life, job history, interests, relationship status. These will almost write themselves because you’ll have an instinct for what fits.

Add complicating factors These might be a wish to protect someone, a job that drains their energy or makes life difficult. If you’re writing historical fiction, look at constraints from social position or the characters’ way of life.

Respite You might also want to give your main characters some respite – a hobby they retreat to, a way they regroup to feel more like themselves and demonstrate a lighter side. Or maybe they need a dark release, an obliterating escape – an addiction, an illicit love affair, a dangerous sport.

Antagonist or antagonists

Their central problem. For the protagonist we asked ‘what’s wrong’ and ‘who are they’. For the antagonist we begin with ‘why’.

Why do they cause trouble? Is it their personality, a need to cause mischief or take revenge? Are they the protagonist’s opponents in a competition? Do they have a duty to uphold a law of the land or some other obligation that pits them against the protagonist?

Here’s another why: why are they a serious threat rather than something the protagonist can shrug off?
If the antagonist is an entity (such as society or an organisation), considering creating a character who embodies its role. Or perhaps this could be several characters. Faceless organisations are not as interesting to read about as characters who act for them. And characters are more interesting to write about because of their humanity. They will act unpredictably – get tired, bad tempered, unreasonable. They will perhaps feel the voice of conscience, or be in conflict themselves. They might make us laugh.

How this generates the story. Once you know these essentials, you will find it easier to decide how they’ll intrude on and threaten the protagonist.

Lastly, if you need to, develop some background details as for your main characters.

Other characters

You need a few significant others – your supporting and secondary characters. Add the people who will regularly interact with your protagonist and antagonist (although they don’t necessarily have to belong to both).

You might want to start with just a handful – perhaps a colleague, romantic partner, close friend, henchman – and add others as new roles become necessary. Or you might sketch out a complete network of people who your leads will regularly see.

Focus on relationships As these characters are secondary, focus on their relationships with the principals. Are they willing participants, wise observers, moral support, meddling do-gooders? Do they have needs of their own that could help or hinder the main characters?

Some salt and sugar in everyone

Protagonists will be tedious if they’re thoroughly good. Antagonists will be pantomimish (and wearisome) if thoroughly evil. Give each of your nice people a dash of vinegar, and each antagonist something good (even if it’s only the conviction that they’re right).

Relationships – again

Now you have a rough cast list, take another look at how they feel about each other. If you do this, you’ll never be at a loss when you wriggle inside a scene with them. You’ll know how to make them distinct in their dialogue because you’ll understand their hidden agendas and individual voices. If one of them needs a favour from the other, you know how easy (or otherwise) it will be to get it. If one of them tells the other off, you know whether they gloated about it or found it extremely uncomfortable; whether it drew them closer or drove them apart.

If you know your characters, you’ll want to tell their stories.

There’s a lot more advice on developing characters – and detailed questionnaires to help you create distinctive people – in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel.


Are you joining in on Nanowrimo? Do you plan ahead or just jump in?

Join us on Friday for Summerita Rhayne’s post – Get Physical with Your Work in Progress (and not mental!)


Bio: Roz Morris published nearly a dozen novels and achieved sales of more than 4 million copies – and nobody saw her name because she was a ghostwriter. She is now proudly publishing as herself with two acclaimed literary novels My Memories of a Future Life and Lifeform Three. She has also been a writing coach, editor and mentor for more than 20 years with award-winning authors among her clients. She has a book series for writers, Nail Your Novel (and a blog, and teaches creative writing masterclasses for The Guardian newspaper in London. She has a show on Surrey Hills Radio, So You Want To Be A Writer. Find her books here

Similar Posts:

Share Button



12 Responses to “A Recipe for Nanowrimo: Plan Your Characters and Improvise Your Plot by Roz Morris”

  1. Morning all..

    Roz thanks so much for being here with us today!

    Last year was the first year I didn’t make nanowrimo…I knew I wouldn’t, too much going on, but I also had no prep for it either. Nothing in mind to write about, not one single thought in my head. I was doomed.

    This year I”m taking this list, filling it out either mentally or on paper and diving in with both feet. It’s time to kick nano’s butt again. =)

    Thanks for the inspiration!

    (ps, RU Writers, if you haven’t read Roz’s Nail Your Novel books, you should! I own them all!)

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | August 12, 2015, 9:26 am
  2. Great post, Roz! I have a love-hate relationship with NaNoWriMo. I’ve “completed” (i.e. reached the target word count) several stories during NaNo, and it was in equal parts envigorating and exhausting. There is a certain rush to just letting it all flow but there’s no denying those stories needed a lot of edits and rewrites post-NaNo.

    Planning ahead of time would steal some of the magic from NaNo, but it would also make it more profitable. I had sworn to give it up for awhile, since I have way too many stories waiting to be doctored.

    Thanks so much for the suggestions!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | August 12, 2015, 10:37 am
  3. Last year was my first time doing NaNo. I won, but the novel was rather hard for me to finish after I reached the goal. It might have been because I outlined a little too thoroughly and the story was taking me places I was reluctant to go. In the end, I went with the story, with the characters, rather than my outline and got a strong draft out of it. This year, I plan to plan a little less 🙂

    Posted by Lucinda Preston | August 12, 2015, 11:03 am
  4. Roz, I always love your advice and enthusiasm (and accent). I’m writing a mystery–my first–and I’m having trouble seeing how some of these points line up with my protagonist. Isn’t her central problem just to “solve the crime?” That doesn’t seem to put much at stake for her, especially because she’s an amateur sleuth. Solve the crime, walk away from the crime, either way her life continues. And because she’s in a foreign (to her) location, she doesn’t even have any relationships when she gets there, so there goes all THAT potential material!

    Posted by Bill Cokas | October 6, 2016, 11:22 am


  1. […] You might have spotted it’s uncharacteristically quiet here today. Wednesday has, from time immemorial, been Undercover Soundtrack day, and yet you find instead a deafening hush. Rest assured, the series will return next week and I have the post in my paws already. In the meantime, I have a guest post today at Romance University. […]

  2. […] Roz Morris guest posts for Romance University on what you need to do for your NaNoWriMo preparation. […]

  3. […] A Recipe for Nanowrimo: Plan Your Characters and Improvise Your Plot It’s not so long before NaNoWriMo now. I know I’m already planning. Roz Morris has some good advice for NaNoWriMo plotters and everyone else. […]

    September Links | Becky Black - September 12, 2015
  4. […] A Recipe for Nanowrimo: Plan You Characters and Improvise You Plot. From Romance University. By Roz Morris. Read more… […]

  5. […] Roz Morris […]

Post a comment

Upcoming Posts





Follow Us