Beginning with Character

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On this page you’ll find advice for coming up with ideas for characters in order to begin your story.

The ideas are a result of my thinking over more than 20 years as a writer and published author, and the last 10 years where I’ve actively put much of this advice to the test helping authors get their ideas onto the page to begin and eventually finish, a story project.

Characters

on a plain blue background stands a paint-spattered human wooden posable figure used by artists
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While not every story is character-driven, every story has characters. Even the most epic stories involving faraway lands and planets and galaxies, comes down to following a few characters through the turmoil to see if they’ll come out the other side.

Readers comment over and over again that engaging characters keep them returning to a particular series or an author’s work in general. Plot types (tropes) are also important and I’ll discuss those next.

In any case, creating characters should be high on your list of first things to do when preparing to write a story. Even if you’re a pantser.

Character charts and sheets are all over the internet. And to some extent they are useful. But writers can often get bogged down in character creation and be slow to move on to the actual character development through the story. The most basic character development requirements are:

venn diagram titled "Developing Character" shows four equally intersected and overlapping circles labeled: physical description, personal history, future goal, present situation or goal, are interconnected and an arrow going from the overlapping center of all four circles has an arrow going down and to the right stating motivation is born from all four elements.
  1. physical description
  2. past personal history
  3. present situation or problem
  4. future goal

You need answers to 1 and 2 to keep characters consistent internally (do they have a dead mother or a dead father? how did that death affect them? – don’t pull a Klinger*) and externally (don’t write “look into their blue eyes” on page 4 and then “look into their brown eyes” on page 34).

*Corporal Maxwell Q. Klinger, of M*A*S*H* had a famous episode where he tried to ask for a hardship discharge and his CO at the time, Henry Blake pulled out a file and runs off a litany of already sick and/or dead relatives, many twice and three times.

You need answers to 3 and 4 to build the character’s part in your plot. Character decision-making (motivation) is always based on how they think they can get out of their present situation or problem and back on track toward their future goal. Sometimes the present situation ties back to their past history – a person with traumas from their past reacts to a present situation differently than if they didn’t have that trauma. Sometimes the present situation ties to the future goal. If they don’t get through this in just the right way, they could blow what they see as their chance to achieve the future goal, or at least severely hamper their progress.

EVEN A SIDEKICK CHARACTER should have future goal(s). Whether these goals help the main character with their plot problem or hamper the main character’s attempts to solve the central plot problem is up to you. No character should be just a tool, a planted item for another character in the story to use. Well, at least it shouldn’t be done without consequences. So you should think about what a character wants both in the present and the future and why they want it.

For more information and tips on developing the four areas of character, explore the links below: