Plot’s good, but it’s not the whole story. The reason the plot matters is because it matters to the characters. Readers read because of the characters. If you replaced your characters with unfeeling robots, your readers probably wouldn’t care about your story.
So how do you design your characters?
I recommend starting small. Here are six questions that will get you rolling. Answer these questions for each of your main characters:
What is this character’s role in the story? (Hero or heroine, villain, sidekick, clown, friend-zone buddy, or whatever.)
What is this character’s name? (You can leave this blank if you’re desperate, but you’re going to need some sort of handle for this character, so I recommend that you pick something early and then change it later if you come up with a better one.)
What does this character want on Day 1 when the story opens? (This isn’t necessarily the main story goal. You’re looking for something that the character wants RIGHT NOW that will drive the story forward in the opening scene. This should be something specific and concrete that the character could conceivably get almost immediately.)
What keeps this character from getting what he or she wants? (Again, this isn’t necessarily the main obstacle in the story, but it’s the main obstacle in the first scene the character has a role in.)
In the bigger picture, what does this character want out of life? (This is probably going to be fairly abstract, but it might be concrete if the character has a very specific dream.)
What threatens to keep this character from ever having any chance of getting what she wants out of life?
It’s easy to answer these questions for your hero or heroine. Most authors can quickly drill out the answers to all six questions for their protagonist.It’s not so easy to answer them for your villain (if your story has a villain). That requires you to put yourself in the villain’s skin. To think like the villain. To empathize with the villain. And many people chafe at the idea of empathizing with a villain.
But if you don’t empathize with your villain, it’s very likely he’ll be a cardboard, uninteresting character. And if that happens, your story will very likely be thin.
It’s also easy to skimp on these questions for the lesser characters—the sidekicks and clowns in your story. But if you do this work, your story is going to become deeper. Because now your sidekick doesn’t exist solely to make your hero’s story come out well. Your sidekick now has his own story with his own goals, and those may come into conflict with your hero’s goals—even if they’re both the best of all friends.
The above questions are not all there is to character development. They’re a start. They’ll get you rolling. We’ll talk more about building out characters in future columns.
When should you do this preliminary character work?
I like to do it as early as possible. The reason is because the characters influence the plot. So until you know your characters, you can’t fully work out your plot.
The plot also influences the characters, of course, so my preference is to work on the plot for a bit, then work on the characters, then get back to the plot, and keep alternating like that for several rounds.