Hello again, everyone! Welcome or welcome back to Words! Today’s How I Write post is on characters. In my experience as a reader, characters are more important than plot, because if we don’t care about the characters, we won’t care about the plot. You need both the person and the journey: without a person we care about, the journey doesn’t matter to us. I’ve been researching characters over the past few months and here’s some of what I’ve found. Here’s how I plan out my characters. (You can always read the other How I Write posts here.)
Step One: Meet The Characters
First, I plan them out the first time with just a list. A pantser could stop right here if they wanted. I also try and take some notes as I write about the things I decide along the way. Maybe you insert that they like mint chocolate chip ice cream and had a bad experience with strawberry. That probably won’t change, so remember it. Sometimes I forget to take notes as I write (because who really has time to jot down everything in both the book and the notes?), which is why I’m learning to read through and list that stuff after I write the first draft, too. Here’s what my character list for my book What Matters Most would look like:
- Amelia (She’s a scatterbrain, and she loves attention)
- Clover (quiet)
- Trixie (Not chatty but not silent.)
- Brock (football player)
- Ryleigh (insecure; dealing with a lot)
- Wyatt (fallen into peer pressure and seems shallow)
Step Two: Get To Know Them
As I work more, I plan out the key details. Sometimes that’s before the first draft, sometimes it’s during the first draft. But remember: the strongest characters are people we can believe in before we create their journey. The character defines the journey, and it shouldn’t be the other way around, which means you need most of this information before you decide on the plot. These are things that matter to them and what made them who they are. You might be asking “Wait. Don’t I need to find their fear, misbelief, and desire first?” I would say no! Why? Well, do you always know what your own misbeliefs, fears, and desires are when you first embark on a journey? I don’t! But I do know what I care about (which dictates my desires), what I’m passionate about (which has to do with my beliefs), and what I’ve been through (which is the root of my fears). Here’s what one of my character’s brief lists looks like:
- Art obsessed
- Not fake (and proud of it)
- Born in Mexico (and proud of it)
- Not her mom, sister, or dad. Just Trixie.
If you’re struggling to come up with a list of your own, think about their personality, their skills, their talents, their weaknesses, and their back story. If you could choose only a few things to highlight about this character in your story, what would be most important?
Step Three: Take a Walk In Their Shoes
Some people like details more than others. Some just see where the story takes their characters and others stress about knowing their character’s brain inside and out. Most people agree, though, that you should know their deepest desires, fears, and misbeliefs, as well as what lead to these desires, fears, and misbeliefs. Think of this as stepping into who they are. You can start with the easy questions, and order them so they get harder, forcing you deeper into their heart. Peel back who they are, layer by layer, until you reach their heart. Here are the questions I ask my characters. You can ask them in any order but this order is my favorite.
- First and last name
- Middle name
- Place of birth
- Favorite things (this can be a whole list of its own as well)
- Happiest memory
- Favorite thing about their self
- Dream job
- Crush/ romantic partner
- Things they’re bad at
- Pet peeves
- Things they hate (this can be a whole list of its own)
- Most embarrassing memory
- Biggest secret
- Weaknesses (Especially the fatal flaw that causes them the most pain in the story)
- Strengths (Especially the one most highlighted in the story)
- Smaller desires (eg. to publish an article, to visit Paris, to get a new bike)
- Smaller fears (eg. spiders, the dark, heights)
- Their deepest desire
- Their greatest fear
“What about their appearance?” you might ask. “Don’t I need to know what they look like?” Yes, but you probably already have a picture in your head as soon as your character ventures into being. If you don’t, the best way I’ve found to figure out what they look like is to make a bitmoji or animoji of them. You can also find a face claim online, a picture of a real person that you think looks like your character. But don’t waste time on finding the perfect face for them. The reader will probably imagine them their own way, anyway. A story is about a character’s heart, mind, and life, not their face.
Now, as you dive into writing, remember this: no first draft is perfect, but they often make the best plans ever. If you decide your story is worth the effort and struggle it takes to edit, revise, and even redraft, make sure that you take a break to go through all of the questions you can find because at this point you should have all of the information you will need. If there are any holes you find that seem really important, now’s the time to figure them out before you dive deeper. The biggest problem I had with my first sci-fi fantasy novel was that I didn’t take the time to character build or world build until just before the third draft. This caused a lot of problems; I had many scenes that conflicted each other, and the information wasn’t in one place. You don’t need all the details but you do need to know something and have it in one place so you can add as your characters and story grow.
My favorite examples of character building in writing that I’ve read thus far is in Gary D. Schmidt’s books. In his Okay For Now, the main character says certain things a lot, and the things he repeatedly says match up with his back story. I won’t spoil it, because you should read it yourself, but an example would be a character saying “I’m serious” all the time because nobody takes them seriously. In his Just Like That, he presents characters with strong backstories that are the basis for every move they make. In his Orbiting Jupiter, the narrative character is not the main character, but the main character is revealed to be not who everyone thinks he is. All three books do have some content warnings and are technically part of a series, so research them before reading them, but they are powerful stories. Why? Because the characters are powerful and we can believe in them as they pursue their dreams.
I hope this helped you! These tips come from experience, as well as Abbie Emmons’s YouTube videos and Spilling Ink by Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter. What are your favorite examples of good character building? What is your own biggest character building tip? What posts would you like to see next? Let me know in the comments!