A story is essentially about creating an interesting, dynamitic yet flawed main character that people can connect to and care about, in which to build a plot around. So how do you come up with these amazing creations? Good question.
I’ve attended more than my fair share of workshops on how to build a great character and though I’ve learned some useful and not so useful techniques, I can say without a doubt the best way for me to get to know and understand my characters is to think about them and write about them. I’ve had a multitude of worksheets and questions thrown my way asking me to think about what my character’s favorite TV show is or what color of socks they prefer to wear. Really? This is going to get me more in touch with who my character is? Not likely. If it isn’t relevant to me why would it be relevant to my character’s development?
You need to get to know and understand them through having them interact with others, their environment and themselves. If you could think of a sentence or two to describe your character what would that be? “Middle aged raging alcoholic man with an unhealthy obsession with porn and cigarettes.” Or “Teenage girl who’s athletic and popular but has such low self-esteem she secretly cuts herself.” Think about your characters and see if you can distill the core of who they are in one or two lines.
- Once you know your character – particularly your main character – you now have to give them dimension.
The best way to do this is to create a problem. This problem will help to move the plot forward by either them being the cause of it or by them reacting in an unusual way because of it. A problem could be a woman has difficulty forming a deep relationship with a man because her father died when she was young in a car accident and she feels responsible for it. So the relationship she’s in is a plot problem due to the character problem which is the deep seeded guilt she carries with her from her past. The problem is what is happening, right now and why.
- What the character does verses what they say.
Your character will try to solve their problem, but conflict stands in the way and it’s usually driven by them – or rather their character flaws. They tell anyone who will listen that they love their perfect job, but deep down they know it doesn’t feed their soul and it’s sucking the life out of them. So they sabotage it by drinking all the time and missing work days and deadlines. Ultimately they get fired and have to rethink their life path, priorities and purpose. Conflict drives the story from problem to solution and the reader is ready to take that journey with the character if it’s compelling enough.
- Getting in their own way
The characters themselves offer unlimited opportunities to have their own traits, good or bad, be their undoing. These restrictions come from within and can be anything from a belief system, age restriction, fear or phobia or even a distorted perception of what is really happening. Really it can be anything that is limiting for that character that comes from them. Perhaps they believe they are not well respected in their place of work and therefore tend to keep themselves isolated from their colleagues in order to avoid feeling hurt and left out. This would prevent them from taking chances to further themselves in their career and limit them from pursuing relationships with their co-workers that could lead to deep friendships or a strong love interest. This could bring a lot of tension when they are forced to interact with their colleagues and create some great internal strife.
- What gets in their way
External obstacles are outside the character’s control or influence and tend to wreak havoc in their lives. They complicate the main character’s life, and possibly others, causing the character to push through their limitations to overcome them. The internal and external factors are what cause the character the greatest discord in their life but also are the very things that bring the biggest growth. The office worker isolates herself from her coworkers but is forced to do a project with her biggest critic who happens to also be the very person she is the most attracted to and he is married. At her core she suffers from low self-esteem but must confront this man in order to work with him and get the recognition she so desperately craves and needs to keep her job.
- Alarm bells!
What is the one thing that makes your character crawl up into a fetal position and want to avoid the world for the rest of their lives? What terrifies them beyond words? Figure this out and you are golden. Discover their greatest fear and use it against them. Why would you do such a cruel thing to your lovely main character you might ask? Because you want to create tension, conflict and emotional cruelty all in the pursuit of character development and growth. See how your character squirms when the man she’s interested in tells her she’s a complete idiot then propositions her even though he’s married. What will she do? Perhaps she’ll look like a fly caught in a web…or maybe something even more interesting.
- Now that’s different
Though I’m not a huge fan of tons of detail when it comes to what your character looks like, I have come to recognize the value of some description. Be brief, stick to a few details and perhaps point out some interesting or unusual things about them. Maybe they have a large head but very small, fine features that would set them apart. There is nothing more irritating then someone going on and on about what the character looks like and exactly how they’re dressed when it’s not really relevant to the story. It’s good to leave some things up to the reader to figure out and imagine.
- A change of scene
Once you’ve figured out who your character is you’ll want to see how they are. I took a workshop a while back and the presenter asked us to take our character and imagine them walking down the street you grew up on and they are walking toward your home. What are they doing, who do they run into and what do they say or how do they react? It was so amazing because I had to take this character I’d created for one world and put them into a very familiar world that was nothing like their own and see what happened. It was quite interesting and time well spent because it really gave me a sense of who they were in any context. You can try imagining your character going to your work or walking through your grocery store or local pub. The key is to see how they’ll react when faced with different environments and people that would be very different from where they are in your story. You’ll get a stronger sense of them and a better understanding of who they are.
You might want to look back at your descriptive line or two you’d written before and see if it still stands true to your character or if you need to adjust it. Good luck and happy writing.