Characters are a big thing for me.
I mean, duh—I’m a writer. But I’ve always had a special spot in my heart for character. Above all else, I’ll go for a good character. I don’t care if the plot’s crap and the drama is juvenile—if I love the character, I can waste hours of my time on it.
Truthfully, I’ve always believed that character is plot. They’re not one and the same, but if you think about it, your characters are the biggest driving forces in your plot—their decisions and actions will affect what happens. They can slow it down, speed it up, or even throw a wrench in it and turn it completely around.
So that’s why I’ve dedicated a whole post to character-building in my Guide to Revision. Because if you don’t have great characters, you can’t have a great story.
(Shameless self-promotion time: Last year I wrote a three-part series on creating character. You can find it here if you want to do some further reading.)
I’m not going to talk about character sheets, or physical appearance or hobbies or anything like that. I’m just going to give you a series of questions, and I want you to pull up a blank document and answer them.
What motivates them?
Every person—and character—has something that motivates them. It can be anything, really—love, faith, family, etc. In THE HUNGER GAMES, Katniss’ primary motivation is survival. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Zuko’s primary motivation through the first two seasons is to regain his honor and thus be accepted by his father. My character’s main motivation is to prove herself, especially to herself. Your character’s primary motivation can be anything you want, but it has to be something.
What’s their end game?
This is equally important. Your character needs to have a goal they’re working towards. Are they trying to save their kingdom? Win the girl? This will probably be related to their motivator, but put a twist on it. As my character’s primary motivation is to prove herself, her end game will probably be something heroic—save the day, avenge her brother, etc.
What’s at stake?
What do they have to lose if they don’t get to their end game? Will they die? Lose someone they love? Or, more specifically, what do they think will happen if they don’t meet their goal?
What are their conflicting wants and needs?
I’m talking about internal conflict. This can be anything from a hitman who hates killing people but needs the money for his family to an anorexic girl who eyes the donuts in the shop window but knows (well, in her mind) that she can’t have them. My character, for instance, wants to get better, but she thinks she needs to keep pretending that she’s not in pain.
Figuring out your character’s conflicting wants and needs can help you out in a couple ways. For one, everyone can understand internal conflict. We’ve all wanted to do something that wasn’t good for us or, vice versa, done things we’re ashamed of because we think (sometimes justifiably) that we need to do them. Secondly, it can give them moral depth. That assassin? Him grimacing after every kill because he hates the work gives him depth. He’s not just a killer anymore; he’s human, too.
What are the skeletons in their closet?
Everyone’s hiding something, be it minor or major. Figure out your character’s secrets. What they don’t say in a conversation speaks more than their words do. What they choose to keep quiet will show their values and beliefs. It can show how confident they are with themselves, or, if it’s someone else’s secret, what kind of person they are.
What are their vices? Their guilts?
I hate perfect characters. I’m not kidding. If a character doesn’t have any flaws and/or never makes a mistake, I can’t connect to them. I need flaws. I need to know what keeps the up at night, what they fall back on during hard times. Take Sherlock Holmes from CBS’ Elementary for an example. He’s a recovering heroin addict. He was several years into sobriety when, on last season’s finale, (spoiler alert) an old friend came back to screw everything up. Though he could’ve chosen to walk away from the heroin Oscar, the aforementioned old “friend”, had left him, he chose to pick it up and use again. The first few episodes of this season were about his guilt over what had happened.
It’s an extreme example, and I’m not saying you should make your characters into drug addicts, but the point still stands. I want flaws. If they break down, what do they fall back to? Do they cut? Go back to an ex who gives them nothing but heartbreak? Eat their weight in food? And, most importantly, how do they feel after?
What’s their fatal flaw?
Every character has one. The PERCY JACKSON series does a great job of describing this. Percy’s fatal flaw is that he wants to save everyone. Annabeth’s is hubris. I can name a dozen other characters—Cap’s is thinking he always needs to be the hero; Bellamy Blake’s is Octavia; Harry Potter’s is his hero complex—but you get the point. There should always be something that can bring them down to their knees.
What are their quirks?
What are they scared of?
I recently watched NaNoWriMo’s How to Revise Your NaNo Novel webinar, and it taught me a lot of interesting things. But one of the things I found most interesting was when James Scott Bell said that every character in a viewpoint scene should have some kind of fear, whether it be just simple worry or something more. I like this idea because not only does it help move a scene forward, it helps show character. So my question is this: what’s your character’s fear? What are they afraid of the most? What are their phobias? Their anxieties? Are these different when they’re alone or with a group of people?
Take, for example, my two main characters. The first is scared to death that people will realize she’s weak, and the “strong” act she’s been putting on is just that. The second character lost his family and village when he was young, and because of this, he became convinced he can’t care about anyone else lest he lose them too. So his fear is caring about anyone. In my novel, these fears will taint every scene they’re in.
What would it take to make them break down?
This will probably go along with their fears and fatal flaws. Everyone has something that will make them lose it. It could be the loss of a family member or friend, going against their morals, being dehumanized—whatever. For Katniss, it was losing her sister. For Augustus in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, it was realizing he wouldn’t get the chance to make a difference. There’s always something that can make someone shatter. As evil as it might be, you need to think about what you’d have to do to make them break down entirely. It’s likely you’ll have to maim your darlings at least a little over the course of the story. So it might be good to figure out just how to do it.
What was the bad thing that happened to them?
No one—even fictional characters—has a perfectly good life. There’ll be something from their past that haunts them. It could be the loss of a loved one, a past failure or embarrassment, witnessing a horrific crime—whatever. You need to figure out what it is. Odds are, it’ll be important in explaining who they are.
What was the defining moment in their life?
Origin stories aren’t just for superheroes. Now, I’m not saying all this background needs to go in your story, but you should know what made them who they are today. If you’re lost on what to do, look at comic books. They’re full of origin stories. Or, even better, watch the ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ episode of Marvel’s Agent Carter’s second season. Take note of the way they develop the characters of both Peggy and Whitney Frost through their backstory.
What’s their worst memory?
This could be the same as their “bad” thing or the defining moment in their life. Every person has a memory that makes them wince. Your character should too.
What’s their fondest memory?
Similarly, every person has a fond memory. This could be a memory from their childhood, or a memory from last week. Your character should have something that makes them happy or even wistful. Showing what they hold dear can reveal just as much as their worst memory can.