Welcome to the 3rd installment of “Nuts for Nano”! If you’re participating in NaNoWriMo, at this time you’re likely about halfway done your novel! That’s so exciting! Get excited!
The week is about beefing up your novel with these 10 ways to make your novel stand out. Essentially, you’re taking what you have so far and adding on layers to make it more complex and interesting. I have a list of 10 ways here, but you do not have to use all of them. Instead, I would suggest using 2-3 of the methods on this list for “beefing” things up.
As usual, I have worksheets to accompany this post. This worksheet has one page for each of these 10 methods and includes some bonus questions to help you implement the methods listed. It’s available for download at the end of this post
Add a Twist
Even if you’re not M. Night Shyamalan, I’m confident you can come up with a convincing twist. An unexpected event is a great way to throw readers off, push your character into conflict, and demonstrate your creative writing genius. The important thing is not to create a twist that doesn’t make any sense, doesn’t create a conflict, or doesn’t add to the story.
Example 1: Jimmy is about to go fight a dragon. He sits down to have lunch and then starts choking! He reaches out to his friend Karen for help as his throat closes.
Example 2: Jimmy is about to go fight a dragon. He sits down to have lunch and then starts choking! Turns out that he’s allergic to the mystical hog meat. He reaches out to his friend Karen for help as his throat closes.
Example 3: Jimmy is about to go fight a dragon. He sits down to have lunch and then starts choking! He reaches out to his friend Karen for help as his throat closes. She smiles as she watches him fall to the ground.
The first example creates conflict (Jimmy can’t very well fight the dragon if he’s dead) but it doesn’t make much sense or add to the story. Instead, it leaves you with questions like why is Jimmy choking? What does choking have to do with the dragon?
The second example is a little better because at least it makes sense, he’s choking because he’s allergic to mystical hog meat. But this adds nothing to the story. It feels like an artificial way of creating conflict for the character.
The third example is the closest to what you would want. There’s conflict created because Jimmy is now in danger, and we can assume that his friend Karen poisoned him. Now we have some meaningful questions like why would Karen do that? Is she in league with the dragon? Does she just really hate Jimmy? Does she want to kill the dragon herself? This twist engages the reader and pushes them to keep reading, and that’s what you want.
Humanizing Your Villain(s)
If you’re ever watching a little movie called “The Lion King”, you might remember Scar. You did not like Scar. He lived on the scary outskirts, he had minions, he was mean, he had a crazy scar (hence the name) and SPOILER he killed Mufasa! You were never confused about whether you should like him, it was obvious that you shouldn’t. This may work for Disney, but it’s not the best thing for your novel.
A great way to make your novel stand out is to humanize your villain. Most people aren’t entirely evil or have their own personal reasons for doing something terrible. Take the example of Robin Hood, he steals from the rich and gives to the poor. In this story, the Sheriff of Nottingham is the villain because he’s always trying to stop Robin Hood and his merry men from thieving. Now let’s say you learn that the sheriff took this job to make enough money for medicine for his sick daughter. And that every time he fails to capture Robin Hood he risks losing his job and thus losing his daughter. Damn, now you don’t feel so good about hating the Sheriff eh?
Your villain may very well be despicable, but showing some human/good makes them a more rounded and interesting character. It can also make your main character feel conflicted about going up against the villain.
Show Another Side of a Weak Character
Does your novel have an annoying minion, a creepy tagalong, or a best friend that doesn’t get a lot of attention? Try showing a different side to this character. Think about Peter Pettigrew from Harry Potter, he was the tagalong and wasn’t particularly special, but he sure made you pay attention to him when he turned out to be a death eater.
There are lots of ways you can do this, maybe the character has a secret hobby, or they come out of nowhere to save the hero, and so on and so on. It’s best, in this case, to use what makes the character look weak to help. If everyone thinks they’re invisible, maybe they sneak off all the time to do this secret hobby? Or if they’re like Peter and think their friends don’t appreciate them, maybe they do something to get their attention or otherwise revenge. Showing another side of a weak character can help set them apart from certain stock characters. It also makes the reader more interested in a character they wrote off previously.
Show An Ugly Side of Your Main Character
If there’s one of these tips you implement, I would recommend this one. Your main character may have a lot of good qualities, after all, they’re likely the hero or chosen one of the stories. But if they’re always doing the right thing and making the best choices then the novel becomes predictable. Let’s take the Robin Hood example, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor is what Robin does. So after he gets the money, the reader knows he’s going to give it to the poor, the cycle is predictable. But if just one time Robin Hood keeps the money for himself everything changes. The reader feels conflicted about whether Robin Hood is as righteous as he seems, and now the cycle is unpredictable. So instead of losing the reader once Robin Hood gets the money, you keep them engaged because they’re waiting to see what he does.
Showing an ugly side to your character not only helps in making events unpredictable, it also makes your characters more realistic. Even the nicest person you know has had at least one time where they did something not so nice. Adding this dimension to your main character makes them more rounded and dynamic.
Add a New Spin to an Overused Trope
If you read my recent Unpopular Opinions post then you’ll know that I’m not a big fan of the typical “girl who doesn’t think she’s pretty or important suddenly having multiple guys fighting over her” trope. There are tons of overused tropes out there, and a definite way to make your novel stand out would be to take one of these and turn it on its head. And I’m not talking about having 3 guys fight over the girl instead of 2.
Think of the genre your novel fits in and some overused tropes within it. Now find a way to add a spin to it. It doesn’t have to be dramatic, just something different. For example, what if the girl (prepare yourself because this is radical) does actually have a good sense of self-worth, but feels nervous about dating, so she avoids dating guys even when they express interest. In this example, the main character still has a vulnerability, but it’s different from what the reader expected.
Round Out Flat Characters
The first step in rounding out flat characters is figuring out which of your characters are falling flat. Flat characters tend to have few personality traits, are predictable, have a single goal, and don’t have any internal conflicts. I wouldn’t suggest that you make all your characters round. Some characters are meant to be in the background or be a minor character. But none of your main characters should fall flat if you can help it.
A common culprit of the main character falling flat is the “best friend”. This character follows the main character, helps them when they need it, gives just the right advice, and is always there. These are all wonderful characteristics, but they’re also predictable. This a great opportunity to add some depth and round out a flat character.
Give Your Characters a Dose of Realism
Whether you’re writing a contemporary novel or a fantasy epic, adding realism to the narrative isn’t impossible. When I say realism, I’m talking about not having things always go their way. Think about your own life for inspiration. It can be something as simple as bad weather to something more dramatic like an unexpected illness.
The purpose is to avoid having everything go the way your characters want it. Make it rain on them, have their crazy plan fail, make them catch a cold, and so on. The goal is to add realism to your novel and to create conflict for your characters to work through.
Create Conflict Between Main Characters
I’m going to hit you with a truth. Friends fight. I would even so far as to say that if you’ve never fought with a friend maybe you guys aren’t as close as you think. It’s almost impossible to go through years of knowing anyone without having some disagreement or scruple.
Think about the characters that are closest to each other and find some topic they might disagree on. Take the Hunger Games, for example, Katniss and Gale both agree to participate in the army but have differing opinions on how warfare should be conducted, which causes conflict between them. Sure, this made all the Katniss/Peeta shippers deliriously happy, but it also made that relationship more interesting. Before that Gale was slavishly devoted, but now readers see that he doesn’t blindly follow Katniss. It gives his character more depth, and their relationship becomes more complicated.
Introduce a Relationship Conflict
The relationship conflict is a bit different than the conflict between characters, and not just because these characters has to be romantically involved. This conflict is focused on something inherent to the romantic relationship. This can be one partner thinking the other isn’t paying them enough attention or doesn’t care about them enough, or feeling that they are growing apart, etc. The purpose of adding a relationship conflict would be to further develop the relationship between the two characters, to push it forward to another level, and to address any insecurities characters may have.
For example, let’s say Jimmy and Sally are fighting through the zombie apocalypse, and they clash over which guns to use and whether or not they want to kill people to steal their stuff. This disagreement can absolutely be the reason they decide to go their separate ways. Or, to add another level of depth there can be a specific relationship conflict, such as Sally realizing that Jimmy cheated on her before everything went belly up. It adds another level to their relationship and like any conflict will push them to act. Will Sally forgive Jimmy? Will she leave him? Will they end their relationship but stay together for protection?
You might wonder how this would be something that makes your novel stand out from the crowd. Think of how many times you’ve read a story where the main couple has to break up because “everything is too dangerous right now”. That’s all well and good, but it also seems to suggest that otherwise their relationship would be perfect. Who has a perfect relationship? No fights, no disagreements, and no doubts? Does not happen. Adding a relationship conflict is a way to add another dose of realism and get your readers to sympathize with the characters.
If you read last week’s segment then you should be very familiar with internal conflicts and goals. For those of you that may have missed it, I’ll recap. An internal goal is something the character wants to achieve at an internal level, that is, separate from the external plot. This may be wanting to feel loved, or belong, or feel important, etc. The internal conflict is something the character feels that prevents them from achieving the internal goal. This can be feeling that you’re not good enough to deserve love, etc.
Your character’s internal conflict is the heart of their vulnerability, and you absolutely want to use this. If your character doesn’t feel they’re good enough to deserve love, show that in your storytelling. They may avoid making close friends, or only make friends with terrible people. They may avoid dating altogether, or only date people that treat them badly because they feel that’s what they deserve.
Using a character’s vulnerability is another way get readers to sympathize with your character and it will ultimately make them more memorable than characters that never have a weak moment.