What Would Napoleon Do With Your Novel?

Are your characters feeling flat and lifeless? Have you heard that your hero needs a bit of personality? Fortunately there is a great exercise called the Napoleon technique that may help you breathe new life into the people in your novel.

The Napoleon technique has been used by countless creative thinkers in the business and science sectors to help tackle problem-solving in new ways. Writers need to solve problems just as people do in the business world, and the good news is that we can use these same types of exercises to solve sticky problems in our manuscripts.

The Napoleon technique is fairly simple, but its applications are boundless. Essentially what you do is take a particular character and give them the characteristics of someone else, say, Napoleon. For example, let's say you have a romance story and your tall, handsome lead gentleman named Doug is trying to figure out how to break it off with his girlfriend and you just can't find an adequate way to write the scene. Instead, take yourself out of it a bit and give Doug the characteristics of Napoleon. What would Napoleon do? How would he have handled the breakup? Would he have ever gotten into that scenario in the first place? What types of things would he say to the girl?

It doesn't have to be Napoleon. It could be someone from a book, a movie, or someone you know in real life. But the trick here is that it should be someone who might come up with an alternative or surprising view of the situation or cause your character to do something that may give you new clues for your story. If you are working on a novel about a quiet woman named Jane who has stumbled on a murder and no one knows that she holds the key to finding out who the killer is, how does that scenario change if she has a Lindsey Lohan "moment" and her girlfriends convince her to get a bit drunk and messed up one night. Does she slip the information to someone accidentally, pass out in the front seat of a car and forget that someone else knows that she knows? Does she belligerently confront the killer and narrowly escape? What happens when she is sober?

Or let’s imagine that you are looking at a particular scene and trying to figure out what is missing, why your characters seem a little flat or awkward. Take a fresh pair of eyes and scan the scene. What would someone like Will Ferrell or Stephen Colbert think of the situation? What would they do? How would they change the story?

There is another variation of this exercise takes this to a different level. You can also use the Napoleon technique to determine up front what sort of person on whom you want to model the personality of your characters. For example, in my own novel, my main character’s personality is a cross between Paris Hilton, Andy Warhol, and Bill Clinton with a little Woody Allen on the side. Think about Paris' outrageous behavior and her riches, Warhol's deep desire for celebrity attention, Clinton's charisma and savvy (you either really love him or really hate him) and Woody's insecurity and obsessive/OCD behavior that manifests in some of his characters. My protagonist doesn’t look like any of those individuals, nor would he be in any of the same situations that these modern day people would be, but I can think about how those people might behave in that scenario and incorporate those mannerisms. I have a better understanding of how my ancient Roman noble will behave at one of his lavish parties or how he might react if propositioned in the public baths. I know how he will treat the hired help or how he might worry about details of his household.

Think outside the box. Be outrageous. Throw your character or your scene into something unexpected and see what happens!

grubstreet Image
About the Author

Crystal King is a 30-year marketing, social media and communications veteran, freelance writer and Pushcart-nominated poet. She is the author of the FEAST OF SORROW, about the ancient Roman gourmand, Apicius, and THE CHEF'S SECRET about the famous Renaissance chef Bartolomeo Scappi. Currently Crystal works as a social media professor for HubSpot, a leading provider of Inbound marketing software. Crystal has taught classes in writing, creativity, and social media at Harvard Extension School, Boston University, Mass College of Art, UMass Boston and GrubStreet writing center. A former co-editor of the online literary arts journal Plum Ruby Review, Crystal received her MA in Critical and Creative Thinking from UMass Boston, where she developed a series of exercises and writing prompts to help fiction writers in media res. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or at her website:

See other articles by Crystal King
by Crystal King


Craft Advice



Rate this!

Currently unrated