May 8, 2018
Last week, we took a broad, overall view of character development. Today, we’ll quit staring at our overalls, zero in on creating that protagonist you’re bringing to life, and add some backstory. I’ll use “protagonist” and “character” interchangeably, but please realize this info holds true for any character you write.
If I asked you about your best friend’s name, age, occupation, eye and hair color, ethnic background, parents, siblings, favorite color/food/beverage, and preferred pizza toppings, you could answer with a reasonable degree of accuracy—because you’ve known that person pretty well over a considerable period of time. If I asked those same questions about your main character, you should be able to do the same.
Why do I need to know all this stuff?
That’s a logical question. How can you expect to credibly write an entire story centered around this person if you don’t know basic information about him? Here’s a terrific piece about the importance of developing character profiles for your characters—including the whys of creating them.
Like many authors, when I meet a new character, I like to develop an in-depth profile. There are several ways to do this. Some folks keep detailed spreadsheets containing rows of characters and columns of attributes (or vice versa); others devise elaborate family trees—with separate, detailed sections for each character. Others assemble what’s called a “character bible,” in which they compile highly detailed data sheets for every character. Some of these sheets can include huge swaths of information encompassing years—or even decades’ worth of time. This enables the author to track a character through the span of an entire book (or series). Some authors will note what kind of car a character drives; others will go as far as tracking what he drove from the day he got his license up until he roared up in that shiny new Ferrari last week.
Some characters are more cooperative than others
You can learn a lot about your protagonist simply by replying to a series of questions as he would answer. I have one character––the husband of another character, Michaela––whose name is Gary. He grows weary of my incessant badgering, and I often find myself responding (in character) with snorts of derision or foolish answers to what he would deem “utterly silly questions.” One such exchange might go like this:
“Say, Gar’, what’s your favorite footwear?”
“Pfft! You kidding me, woman? More questions?! Don’t you know everything there is to know about me by now?” At this point he generally rolls his eyes and heaves a beleaguered sigh.
“Pretty much, yeah; but humor me, okay?”
“Fine [note exquisitely sarcastic tone]. I love to slip on a pair of French baguettes from time to time. Really fresh ones, so they’re nice and bouncy inside. Not too crusty on the outside, either—or they tend to crumble too quickly. ’Course, I can’t wear them outside when it’s raining.”
“Smart aleck! Be serious.”
“How can you expect me to be serious when you ask me stupid questions, Rita?” Reaches for and unwraps a Mounds bar. “C’mon, be observant! What do I usually wear?” Takes a bite and points the rest of the bar at me for emphasis.
“Your beat-up sneakers.”
Chews thoughtfully. Nods. “Telling you what, exactly?”
“That they’re worn out because you wear them so much.”
Chews and swallows. Taps nose with finger. “Now you’re getting it. Any other brilliant questions?”
“Not right now, no.”
I swear, he’s like one of those awful hissing cockroaches sometimes! Truly, the only reason I don’t squash him is he’s a central character in about three more books. Plus, he’s not always that ornery … besides, his wife would never forgive me if I widowed her after only two books and three kids.
A starting point for character-development questions
Fortunately, most of my characters are more compliant (and open to my questions—not to mention willing to at least offer me a bite of their candy bar). There’s a series of basic questions I use to begin familiarizing myself with each character. It’s a simple list of background information I insist on knowing. You can find a discussion of that list here.
When you want to grill a new character and don’t want to stick strictly to a list of ordinary questions, here are some good ones to use:
Favorite ice cream
Favorite thing to hear
Favorite TV show
Night or day person?
Favorite day of week
How many tattoos?
Like to cook?
Beer or wine?
Can you drive a manual transmission?
White or brown gravy?
Glasses or contacts?
Favorite thing in the world?
Once you’ve fleshed out your protagonist through the careful use of character-development tools, here are a few final considerations to help you craft realistic (and generally likeable) characters:
No one wants to read about flat characters with zero drive. Seriously, who needs fiction that doesn’t go anywhere? Even your minor characters need substance, depth and personality. This is a fantastic discussion of round vs. flat characters. And don’t forget quirks. Every well-crafted character needs a few idiosyncrasies. Maybe he whistles ’70s television theme songs while he’s tinkering with his car. Or she lapses into occasional outbursts of Dutch when she gets anxious. Devise a few personality quirks that make your characters memorable and endear them to the reader.
One last thing …
Finally, remember this: Characters can’t be perfect; they need flaws. There are no absolutes. No hero is angelically wonderful; likewise, no villain is 100% diabolically evil. Just as your protagonist can’t be constantly rescuing puppies, your antagonist shouldn’t be kicking them all the time; he needs one or two redeeming features. Don’t shake your head and say, “Your goofy protagonist might have flaws (like his well-developed sense of sarcasm, not sharing his Mounds bar, and a tendency to be overly fond of mimicry), but not mine,” [or some such]. Whether you wish to acknowledge it, your darling protagonist does, in fact, have flaws. A great many, I’m afraid.
However … be careful not to make him too flawed—lest you risk readers not liking him. After all, you know what happens when readers dislike your main character, right? They put down your book. You want just enough flaws to make your protagonist real, but not so many that readers will mistake him for the villain.
Next week we’ll focus on writing a particular kind of character … the one with a chronic or terminal illness.
Oh, and I hate to break this to you, but I have it on good authority your protagonist deliberately serves difficult customers “hi-test” instead of decaf late at night, just for spite. So Gary’s unwillingness to share his candy bar doesn’t seem so awful by comparison now, does it?
This time the character is YOU—Enter the IFW Personal Essay Contest and tell us about a trip that didn't go as planned
In 1,000 words or less, tell us about a trip that didn't go the way you intended. It could be a trip of a lifetime, a chaotic road trip, or just a trip a to the grocery store. It's up to you to tell the most engaging story you can. (This can be suitable for a magazine or anthology, like Chicken Soup for the Soul.) Click here for all the details.
Rita M. Reali is an award-winning author whose work has appeared in Reminisce magazine, the S.H.A.R.E. pregnancy-loss newsletter, and newspapers across Connecticut and Tennessee. She’s spoken about editing at writers’ conferences and delivered presentations on proofreading to several professional groups. Rita also runs an editing and proofreading business, The Persnickety Proofreader, and blogs under the same moniker: https://persnicketyproofreader.wordpress.com. Her debut novel, Diagnosis: Love, was published in 2015; she published her second novel, Glimpse of Emerald, in 2017.
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