You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, you find out who they really are.
It all begins with the faint early tingles of a story idea creeping through my brain.
When that “spark” turns out to be a fantasy/speculative fiction idea that requires extensive world-building, the work begins. Through that planning and building process, as mentioned in my previous post, I learn the context for how my characters are going to live, interact with each other, and move their way through the world.
But without the characters, you have an empty landscape.
It’s as if they are reading over my shoulder, as I fill pages and pages of Google Docs with the geography and culture and systems of government within their world. They frown and shake their heads when I sketch costumes that are impractical for their trade or daily lives. I feel them rolling their eyes behind me when I write conversations on their behalf: words and statements that ring false, dialogue you’d never ever hear uttered from their mouths.
And suddenly, here we all are. Me, and the fictional people in my head.
I’m sure other writers relate to this, to some extent, although I can’t be sure to what extremes they take it. On the surface, at best it seems a little eccentric. Prior to writing the fundamental bones of the story, I spend quite a bit of time thinking about the people in it, as if they are living, breathing people who live actual lives when I’m not writing about them.
There are many different schools of thought, regarding Character Development; the art of creating characters people empathize with and whose journeys they want to follow. I, for one, start with one general rule, once I have the idea for the story roughly sketched out in the world I’ve painted. I get to know my protagonist first. There are many tools one can use to accomplish this; my favorite is the official National Novel Writing Month Character Questionnaire. Completing this exercise gets you thinking about how your protagonist grew up within the world you’ve created, prior to the events of the story you’re writing. It gets you thinking about what formative events shaped the personality traits you envision for them, and clues you in on what they might say or do in future situations (i.e. plot twists and obstacles). It helps you understand what they want, what their future aspirations are, which also shape their behavior.
My next step is to get to know my primary antagonist. The villain. The bad guy. The person (if it is a person) that adversely and actively acts as a foil to your protagonist, yet needs to be a fully realized and complex person/nonperson in his/her/its own right (this last point is extreeeemely important. Important enough to warrant a separate blog post). If there is no conflict in the story, it is difficult for that story to go anywhere or for your protagonist to experience personal growth, and for me it is more interesting to have that conflict stem from another vibrantly real and complex individual (although it is possible to create conflict without a villain… yet another blog topic for another day).
Next, I think about secondary characters. These are the supportive characters who know, are related to, are subservient to, have power over, are in love with, and/or despise the protagonist and/or the antagonist. They, too, need to have well-rounded backstories and motivations, even if not everything is alluded to in detail as the story is being written. Using character development tools for even minor characters will prevent them from reading one-dimensional on the page. Readers can absolutely pick up on characters who are plot devices, who exist merely to propel the plot forward. They receive a couple of pages (or even paragraphs) of exposition or action, their literary “15 minutes in the spotlight” and then they disappear into the depths of the plot and are not heard from again. Give these folks more credit, if you can. Especially if they create what I call “relevant complexity” within the narrative by bringing their own influence, advice, experience, hubris, perspectives, prejudices, and motives to light.
As with world-building, your readers might never see the full Character Development profiles you’ve so painstakingly crafted for your characters. They might never know the full background and exploits of Character A’s history as a notorious pirate, but they will know enough to understand why Character A has acquired so much wealth, and why the authorities are after him, why he hates storms, and why he avoids a certain port on a certain island. The more time we spend with our characters, the more details we flesh out… and the more details we know, the more we treat them as real people. Real people, with real motivations, with whom readers can empathize. Real people to admire or detest, but always to learn from, and – on some level – understand.
And when I do reach the point of understanding them, the people in my story, they become anchors. If delving into their world is my entry-point into the story, the characters I meet along the way keep me grounded there.
And along the way, I start to understand that the story is no longer, and probably was never, mine.
It is theirs.
Become a Patron, and unlock additional content! View the Character Profile for one of the main Stormriders protagonists… meet Ben Corley.
This is the third post in a 4-part series about The Big Magical Process of Making Words Happen (According to This Author).
Part 4: Our Journey Begins Now, But How? (or: To Plot or Not to Plot)