Guest article by Denise Jaden, author of Fast Fiction: A Guide to Outlining and Writing a First-Draft Novel in Thirty Days
What makes you fall in love with a story? For me, it is usually the vivid, memorable, and deeply-intricate characters, brought to life on the page. But how do we create the kind of characters that will not only make us wildly flip pages, but will make us re-think our own lives and motivations, and live on in our memories for years to come?
Amazing characters often take many years to fully bring to life, but as a jumping off place, work through the following character creation steps. Find an empty book, or create a new document on your computer to record all of your findings.
Step 1: Study relationships, not just a people.
For me, the beginning of character creation always starts with relationships. I get two or more characters in mind, and it’s through the process of getting to know what they have in common and what qualities rub against each other that I discover who each of the characters are on their own.
For example, in my first young adult novel, Losing Faith, my initial thoughts were not of my main character, Brie, but rather of the relationship between her and her older sister, Faith. It was a love/hate relationship, with Faith being the good-girl religious sister, and Brie being the black sheep of the family. Just knowing those small interactive details gave me enough fodder to create fully-drawn “people” in each of these characters.
Step 2: Find the wants.
Every character, as every living person, should want things. Think for a minute about the things you want in life. Maybe it’s to make more money or grow your hair or fix up an old Mustang or pass an exam. Then make a list of everything your characters could want. Are any of these desires unique and interesting or universal to all of us? Could any of them be made into needs instead of simply wants?
Step 3: Implement your favorite heroic qualities.
What are the heroic qualities that stir you up when you read some of your favorite novels? Is the main character tenacious beyond reason? Or maybe he or she is brave in the face of extreme danger. Study some of your favorite books and favorite characters and decide what it is you love most about them. Make a list of these qualities, and then look at the character relationships and desires you’ve already created. Could any of these heroic qualities help your characters reach their goals? Can you envision scenes where your characters have to overcome obstacles using these heroic qualities? Write these down so you don’t forget them.
Step 4: Show the big flaws.
All characters, like all people, have flaws. The difference between you and I and our characters is that we want our characters to have bigger, more ironic flaws than we do. For example, a bad temper is a fairly common flaw. But what if a character’s temper was so bad that he once killed someone over a simple argument? Or what if the man with an extremely bad temper has a great desire is to become principal for his local elementary school?
Look back at the things your characters want most. Are there any big personal flaws that would obviously hinder those goals? Think of the diabetic woman who dreams of opening a bakery, or the aspiring pilot with a debilitating fear of heights. List as many flaws as you can for each character. You don’t have to use all of them, but give yourself choices so you can use the ones that will hinder your characters the most on their plot journeys.
Step 5: It’s all in the details.
What do your characters think about their mothers? What skill do they wish they had, above anything else? Do they have any pets, and if so, how do they treat their pets? Is caretaking a nuisance, or are their dogs their best friends?
It’s these little details that bring characters alive and make them seem like real people. You can never know too many details about your characters, even the minor ones. Use character interviews (search on Google or use the character-building exercises in my new book, Fast Fiction: A Guide to Outlining and Writing a First-Draft Novel in Thirty Days) or directed free-writing to discover as many little details about your characters as you can. What are their favorite foods? What smells make their stomachs sour? What are their worst habits and most private secrets? Use a timer, so you’re forced to push through and write down the first thing that comes to mind for each character.
Don’t settle for creating cookie-cutter characters that will simply work with your plot. The more you know about your characters, the more they will come to life on the page. Not every detail will be shown through the course of a novel, or even a series of novels, but those tidbits create fully-rounded backgrounds, so that your characters’ lives are not just present for the duration of your story. Your characters will give off the feeling of having had full lives before this and an imaginable future where they continue to have full lives for many years to come.
Based on the book Fast Fiction. Copyright © 2014 by Denise Jaden. Reprinted with permission from New World Library. www.NewWorldLibrary.com
Denise Jaden is the author of Losing Faith (Simon and Schuster, 2010), Never Enough (Simon and Schuster 2012) and Fast Fiction. She lives in British Columbia with her husband and son, and is currently at work on another young-adult novel, which she fast-drafted during the 2012 NaNoWriMo. Her website is www.DeniseJaden.com.
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