Last week I shared one way to make an outline and I also mentioned two other things you need before you start writing your story: a summary and a description of your characters. Your characters are what makes or breaks your story. That’s why this week I’m looking at how you prepare your character for their journey.
There are several things you need to know about your characters. For the rest of this post I will take a main character as an example.
You need to know what your character looks like. Even when you don’t want to over describe and only mention she has frizzly hair and buck teeth, you have to create a full visual in your head, or else she will do so herself. This is also important if you want to commission art of her or if you want her on the cover of the book.
You can either write it out in detail or for a more visual approach. I already mentioned Pinterest and the creating of mood boards. You can also draw them yourself or do photo manipulation if that’s more up your alley.
Capture their whole appearance, not just their face or physic. What does your character wear? What’s her choice of formal or casual wear? Does she wear accessories? What kind of shoes does she prefer? Is she a fashion icon or would she pick comfort over brands?
Clothing doesn’t always matter, but if you’re writing about a young woman in New York in the chicklit genre, it would be a little odd if you never mention fashion or her choice to not care for fashion. If fashion is a thing in your story, don’t forget to make an overview what your character is wearing in each scene. Your reader might have an interest in fashion as well, you have to show you’ve done your research.
Not very important, but necessary as preparation. I’ll show you a different side of your character. Writing down their basic information might be a small step, but it does make them feel real. Name, age, gender, birthday, place of birth, parents, siblings. You can deduct many things from this information about the personality of your character. Someone who’s a middle child will behave differently from a first or last born. A child with both parents, a single parent or adoptive parents is different from a child with no parents. Think about their education and why they choose this path.
When you’ve written down basic information, write out what kind of consequences each piece has for your character or the motivation for their choice. My main character this year is Zheng and she likes nature. That’s because she’s always either working in fields or trying to escape her father by walking outside. She’s drawn to the emperor’s garden later, and she’ll spend most of her free time there.
Questioning your character
I see a ton of character sheets and character FAQs floating around. I’m skeptic, because none of these are perfect for your story. Many of these have questions that aren’t relevant to your character or world. It never hurts to take some questions anyhow.
If you’ve already written your outline, you’ll know what kind of moral problems or conflicts they’ll face. You know the world. Take these points as starting points for your questions to your characters. Find out how they would react in certain situations and why. Go deep. The deeper you go, the more real your characters becomes.
Don’t just focus on the introspective side of your character. Her relationships with the world around her are just as important. Find out what your character’s relationships are with the world, its institutions and other characters. My friend Jeroen Steenbeeke uses a conflict matrix to get an overview of the relationships of all the characters. Check out his site for more information about the conflict matrix.
Your Character’s Journey
Stories are the most interesting when a character changes because of the events happening. The changes can be good or bad, as long as there is change. Your character will face conflict and whatever the outcome is, your character will carry the consequences. It’s rare if they react the same way to the same kind of conflict. A second kiss always has a different reaction than a first kiss. They might feel the same emotion, but it’ll be more intense. Or anti-climatic.
Play with your character’s emotions. that’s how you show they are human. Let them experience good and bad emotions. But always give them a good reason. If your character goes from happy to angry, explain why. It doesn’t have to be explicit, but show the reason for their mood change. It can be that their arch rival entered the room or the coffee is cold. The first incident requires more explaining than the latter. It also gives you a beautiful opportunity to show what kind of relationship they have.
No one is perfect, so neither are your characters. Don’t be afraid to give them a flaw, and another. This can be anything: from a bad drinking habit to liking pineapple on pizza. Do know that when you choose to write about a person with a disability, language use matters. Research this.
Creating a fully fleshed out character takes time. Don’t underestimate this. It’s better to spend more time on your character development than on your outline, because your character drives the story. It’s their interaction with the events that are the heart of the story, but if you don’t know how they would react or if they’re given a standard reaction, your story will fall flat. Create diverse characters for your story, to make the interactions between the different types more exciting. Add some spice for extra flavor. Have fun!