This is the first blog in a series of tips for writers.
Some people begin writing their book with a fully developed story in their heads. Those people are called plotters, and they are blessed with the ability to reason through the outline for an entire story before they write the first sentence. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but they usually have a strong idea of where their story will go from the beginning.
I’m what the writing world calls a pantser. I write by the seat of my pants. Then I edit until the last draft doesn’t look a whole lot like the first one. That’s not to say that plotters don’t have to edit. They certainly do and likely just as much or more. I’ll give you tips on editing in a different blog.
Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, if your characters aren’t real to you and your reader, then you might as well not bother. Not only do they have to be real, but they have to appeal to your reader. Your reader must have reason to care about your characters. Even books that are plot driven, must have strong characters that readers will identify with in one way or another.
If you’re like me, you might begin with a vague plot idea and one or two characters. I usually have a protagonist and antagonist in mind, even if I don’t know much about them. Before it’s over with, they become real to me. If you do it right, your characters will practically write their own story.
Today we’ll focus on the protagonist of the story. Later we’ll talk about antagonists and secondary characters.
Maybe I know my protagonist is a young boy whose parents are preoccupied with his baby sister. Maybe I know that pirates will play a part in the story.
Maybe it’s a 12-year-old girl with a problem. She needs something…. She’s worried about something…
It could be a 15-year-old boy who is in search of something… He’s afraid of something…He’s brilliant in some ways and absolutely stumped in others.
How do I decide where to take the story? I invite my characters to tea and get to know them. I write children’s literature, but these work for adult characters as well.
Questions that are easy to answer.
1. What does your character look like?
2. Sound like? (formal or casual speech patterns, sound of voice, etc.)
3. How old is your character?
4. Are there parents, siblings, friends, children, etc?
5. Hobbies? Job? Career?
6. Favorite foods, games?
7. What does your character love?
10. What are their goals, desires?
11. Strengths, weaknesses?
12. What are characteristics that the reader will recognize as something they may love or hate about themselves. (The character loves to sing but can’t carry a tune.)
13. How does the character see herself/himself?
14. How do others see him/her?
15. Personality and physical quirks? (bites her nails, constantly asking awkward questions, a strange attachment to a particular ring that has history.)
16. Any interesting or even traumatic personal history that will make this character stand out? (Father killed in traffic accident when the character was 6 years old. Aunt that always told stories about the time she was kidnapped by aliens.)
Questions that drive conflict. (They all do to some extent, but these are biggies!)
17. What is the character’s problem?
18. What are the stakes if he/she doesn’t solve the problem?
19. How can this character’s personality and physical attributes make the problem better or worse?
Try answering these questions about your main character and see where they take you.
It’s great to know all these things about your protagonist before you go too far into your story, but if you’re like most of us, you’ll know some now and learn some as you go along, just like a real friendship. I tend to rewrite the first part of the book once I know the characters better.
Something else to remember: your protagonist should have as many negative attributes as possible. Otherwise, they become unrealistically perfect. More on that in another blog.
Another important thing to remember is that you may never use some of this background knowledge in your writing. Knowing these things will make a difference in the way your character approaches the events that transpire.
This isn’t an exhaustive list. You’ll find a lot to add as you write.
Best wishes and happy writing,
Many thanks to Holli Hamner for all your help.