Add A Character, Up Your Word Count!

by James Scott Bell

screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-7-27-53-amSo it’s NaNoWriMo time again. Every November writers all over the world clack away at their kekyboards to complete the first draft of a 50k word novel in one month.

Are you in?

How do you feel? Excited? Afraid? Wondering how you can possibly average 1667 words a day?

All of the above?

Good. Because writing should give you the stomach flutters. That’s how you know you’re engaged and connected. The really good stuff only bubbles up when you are writing out on a limb. You want to push yourself forward, reach for heights you haven’t reached before.

NaNoWriMo is that reaching up on steroids. It’s fun and always a great discipline, even if you come up short of the 50k mark.

Now, just as in the normal writing world there are those who like to wing it with practically no planning at all, and those who want to have at least a roadmap before starting the journey. The great thing about NaNo is it’s for any style of writer.

Today, I want to offer a couple of tips for that fearful moment when you’re 10 – 20k in and you have absolutely no idea what to write next.

One tip was in my recent post about asking what the bad guy’s doing. If you’re stuck in the middle, take half an hour to think about what your antagonist is up to off stage. Have him planning his next few moves. Then go back to your protagonist who will feel the permutations of those moves.


Raymond Chandler

The other tip I have for you when you get stuck is to do a variation of Raymond Chandler’s advice about bringing in a guy with a gun.

Yep, introduce a new character.

But what character? How do you choose?

Here are a couple of suggestions:

  1. Open up a dictionary at random. Find a noun. What kind of person pops into your head who you would associate with that noun?
  1. Spin the Writer Igniter. You can also use this cool app to choose a scene, a prop, or a situation.

Now you’ve got a new character ready to enter the fray. Before he or she does, ask yourself how this character will complicate the lead character’s life. Hopefully, you know enough about writing a novel that your Lead is facing a matter that feels like life and death–– physically or professionally or psychologically.

This new character will be the carrier of a subplot. A subplot needs to intersect with the main plot in some significant way––and a way that complicates matters for the Lead.

A new character like this is good for another 5k words at least

Bada-bing! You’ve added to your NaNo word count.

But what if you’re in the final act of your book? The hard part, where you have to figure out how to tie up the loose ends?

Add another character! A loose-ends tier-upper!

But won’t that seem out of the blue? A Deus ex machina?

Not if you go back to Act 1, or the first part of Act 2, and introduce the character there. You’re the writer, remember? You can go back in time in your own book!

This exercise works for NaNo, but also for any novel where you feel that long middle is starting to sag.

Introducing one complicating character gives you lots of plot possibilities. And I love plot possibilities.

So are you planning to NaNo this year? Have you got your idea yet? Or are you going to just wing it that first day?


knockoutlogolgAnd just in time for NaNoWriMo, my interactive coaching program, Knockout Novel, is $10 off through November…and you own it for life. You can use it to help you plot all your novels (as our recent bestselling guest attests).


27 thoughts on “Add A Character, Up Your Word Count!

  1. I have two projects occupying my time for year end that will force me into NaNo warp speed.

    Thanks for the link to Writer Igniter. My first spin came up with:
    Buying a tiger

    That cracked me up. I like it!

      • A mime serial killer would be hilarious yet frightening. I like it. Add a pet tiger? Pure gold.

        I’ve often talked about the challenge of writing a novel based on throwing darts & hitting random ideas on character/plot, but Writer Igniter is a version of that. Great fun. Thanks for the chuckle.

  2. Yes, I am doing Nano this year. And I am very excited to announce that I have finally managed to unload the job from hell (the one that cost me my health and which costs me 14 hours a day for my 8 hr a day job) and starting a new job on October 31st that is going to allow me to have something I haven’t had in 3 years–A LIFE. An honest to goodness REAL LIFE. Not that I’m excited or anything…. 😎

    And that life is definitely going to include writing, starting with Nano on November 1st. If I had my druthers, I’d go into Nano well-plotted, but it’s going to be seat of the pants, even though the novel concept has been rolling around, mostly unattended, inside my head for a few years. Even the boys in the basement have been too tired to touch it the last 3 years.

    But that’s okay. I made an agreement with myself. I understand going in that a good chunk of what I write in November during Nano will ultimately be cut out, but it’s going to be the foundation from which I build the entire story. I can explore all the nuances and complications of the story. I guarantee I’ll likely write scenes that will start the story too early. But I need to explore it. I’ve never written a novel that was only 50,000 words anyway, so I know I can’t finish this novel during November. But I can give myself a solid jump start.

    I can’t wait. This year it’s not just about re-igniting my writing, but re-igniting my LIFE. YEEHAW!!!!!!!!

    • Wow, BK, what great news! To be released from a day job that sapped you like that. It’s the perfect time to start afresh, and the November NaNo will be it. I wish you lots of joy as you write!

  3. At a writer’s conference, one speaker (either Linda Howard or Jodie Thomas–can’t remember) told us her editor wanted 1000 more words. She sweated trying to find a way to work in something new, but said her writing was so tight, she just couldn’t do it. Her son asked her the heroine’s name. “Mary.” He told her to change it to Mary Elizabeth. She did, turned in the revised file, and her editors never questioned it.

    • Now THAT is hilarious. Erle Stanley Gardner did much the same thing back when writing for the pulps which paid by the word. He would always use first and last names, no matter where he was in the story:

      Perry Mason said to his confidential secretary, Della Street, “Get me Paul Drake on the phone.”
      “Sure will,” Della Street answered.
      Perry Mason sat at his desk and lighted a cigarette, wondering what Paul Drake would say about his client, Morton Mongrove. It was Morton Mongrove who reported the murder of Allison O’Daire.
      A moment later there was a knock at the door and Paul Drake entered.
      “Well there you are,” Perry Mason said.

      • Is hilarious and interesting. Cain’s ‘Double Indemnity’ and “Postman,’ both great novels, DI or both have to be in the top ten of first person novels, both have word counts in the low to mid 30,000’s and both probably wouldn’t be published today

      • Down here in Dixie, we use three names~ and not just Billy Bob or Betty Sue, either~ Alice Ann K…, Mary Glenn S…, Robert Lee B…, ~so if you find yourself in a REAL pinch… 🙂

  4. Uh-oh. A perfumed Berlin plumber-in-training stumbles upon an ancient mystery? The proximity of perfume and a sewer stumbler frightens me.

    A . . . young plumber’s apprentice is tracing out a water line just off the intersection of Kurfürstendamm and Tauentzienstraße when he runs across the mummified remains of Der Fuhrer. A pistol sits on a wreck of a side table, and a . . . guy? . . . is sitting on Hilter’s . . . uhm, lap . . .

    Perhaps I will spin again. Somewhere in there MUST be an 11-year-old girl named Gretchen and a horse named Charger and a placed called Sunnybrook.

  5. I’m right on the edge of saying yes to the November craziness. I do have an idea of what to write — a ghost story thats a mystery.

    I was writing an unpublishable novel (how else do you learn) and I came up with a great way to move ahead. Ask this question: What is the worst thing that could happen to the protagonist right now? For me it works.

  6. As I mentioned in my reply to Jim (ab0ve) I will be doing NaNo next month. I have done very little prep, and have not yet come up with a working title. But I’m in for the challenge nevertheless.

  7. Hey, this works. I know from experience. For our third book, Paint It Black, we came in really low in word count and our editor said we had to writer longer. (The idea being that thrillers had a certain minimum word count, which I don’t disagree with). We came up with a new character in rewrites that was a terrific red herring plus we enriched our villain’s background and gave him more reason to go off the deep end. Added almost 20K and the book was much better for it.

  8. Someday I may attempt NaNoWriMo, but not yet. I never thought I would say this, because until recently, I had only written short stories. But, I don’t understand how anyone could write a novel length work without a plan, but especially with NaNo! Maybe if the author has more writing experience, but the thought of that is terrifying to me! I think I’ve read a lot of your books. They’ve helped much. Thank you! 🙂

    • Face down your fear. That’s one of the benefits of NaNo. You jump off a cliff and grow your wings on the way down. It’s exhilarating just to try. You grow writing muscles you never knew you had.

      Thanks for the kind word about my books.

  9. As sure as I sign up for NaNo, two weeks in there will be a life crisis. Happens every year. But who knows, maybe this is the year I actually get to stay home in November and write! Seriously though, when I’m on deadline, I write 50K in a month. Usually because I’ve gotten a late start. 🙂 Thanks for the great suggestion and now I’m off to get the Writer Igniter.

  10. Hi. I’m going to attempt NaNo for the first time this year, but to finish a novel. I’m 35k words in and progress has been slow, but I love the thought that it could be finished in six weeks’ time! So kind of a headstart, but I think it’s still in the spirit of NaNo!

  11. I did NaNo last year for the first time. I’ve been reworking the same novel for the past few weeks and I think I’ll try NaNo again just to push myself to finish the blasted thing.

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