Nouning Your Characters

By Logan Miller


When writing (say, for NaNoWriMo), do you find yourself thinking predominantly about narrative? Sure, numerous characters populate that narrative, but maybe your thinking tends to revolve around circumstances, events, conflicts, etc. If it does, I’d bet you also sometimes worry about whether your characters feel whole or whether they have a life beyond the confines of the narrative. If any of this sounds familiar, don’t worry. I do these things, and I’d wager numerous writers at all experience levels would confess to the same.

Shelves and shelves of writing guides suggest writing three dimensional characters who are motivated toward some goal, and the deferral and fulfillment of that goal drives the plot. I would never disagree with this idea, but in unraveling why I so often worry about my characters’ completeness, I’ve recognized the following: in focusing on a central goal, I inexorably subordinate the characters to the narrative, as if nothing they might do or think matters, unless it gets them through the narrative arc I’ve laid out.

I fall into this pattern because I consider plots before characters. Maybe other writers don’t do the same, but this is my personal writerly challenge. I bet we’ve all consumed media where it felt like the characters acted odd for the sake of the plot.

If you’ve worried as I do, the following activity might help. I can’t speak to its initial genesis, but I came to it by way of my friend and instructor Christopher Coake.

  1. Pick a character of yours. I’ll refer to myself as the character here for simplicity.
  2. Pick 25 nouns the character would use to refer to themselves. Mine follow.
Writer Consultant Tutor Perfectionist Snowboarder
Procrastinator Romantic Cynic Realist Reader
Doodler Artist Feminist Marxist Student
Brother Best Friend Dreamer Researcher Drinker
Son Talker Overthinker Gamer Fashionista

In choosing nouns, I’ve focused on who my character is or sees himself to be. Why these nouns? Well, they’ve all defined my character in whole or in part at some point in time. Maybe some of these choices relate to motivation, but I can’t say that yet. All we have is a brief portrait.

Remember, you don’t need to feel tied to the number used here; you may need more (or fewer) nouns before you begin to see the outline of a character. With time, I could generate a list of a hundred or more, but I don’t know that I’d need that many.

  1. Now, pick the top five nouns. Mine would probably be:
    1. Consultant
    2. Student
    3. Writer
    4. Talker
    5. Procrastinator

Why those five? My days are largely circumscribed working on schoolwork and at the University Writing Center, but beyond the time commitment, I also identify with the work I do in both venues. My identity as a writer gets edged out primarily because I’ve only been published in smaller venues and because I’ve actively procrastinated on all my creative writing endeavors lately. However, I write for work and school and have numerous projects that I hope (with work) will be accepted for publication. My fourth noun often represents a bigger portion of my time than writing often does, but I place more importance on my writing than on my oration. Finally, I can conceive of the fifth noun in a higher position—it’s a constant challenge—but I like to think that I overcome this identify, once in a while.

What do these nouns tell us about my character? I’m work focused, placing my role there above my role as a student. I have a potentially ambivalent attitude toward being a writer; it’s a comfortable identity, but not a consuming one. Being a talker might be positive, but in this case represents more of a cheeky admission of what I see as a flaw, and procrastination plays such a role in my life that it couldn’t realistically fall lower.

By providing similar justifications for your character’s nouns, you can begin to outline these characters’ competing fears, ambitions, and desires in a way that doesn’t just serve the narrative. Ask yourself, how would this character respond in a situation? Your work identifying your character’s manifold identities can help answer that question.

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