When we begin planning a novel, we might have the plot for an award-winning narrative in our head and an amazing cast of characters eager to leap onto the page. But until we know who the hero and the antagonist are when they are off duty, we don’t really know them. And until we know what they want, we have no story.
No matter what genre we write in, when we design the story, we build it around a need that must be fulfilled, a quest of some sort.
For the protagonist, the quest is the primary goal. But they must also have secrets, underlying motives not explicitly stated at the outset.
The supporting characters also have agendas, and their involvement in that storyline is affected by their personal ambitions and desires.
Our task is to ensure that each of our characters’ stories intersect seamlessly. Motivations must be clearly defined.
We must know how the person thinks and reacts as an individual.
- To that end, we assign verbs, action words that reflect their gut reactions.
What drives them?
- This is where we give them a void, a lack or loss that colors their personality.
- We assign nouns that describe their personalities.
Finally, we ask ourselves, “What are their moral boundaries, and what is out of character for them?”
- Why are they in this story? What is their role?
- What lengths will they go to in the effort to achieve their goal?
- Conversely, what will they NOT do? Even supervillains have something they draw the line at doing.
So now we create their file:
The antagonist also has motives, both stated and unstated. They have a deep desire to thwart the protagonist and have reasons for that wish. They have a history that goes beyond the obvious “they needed a bad guy, and I’m it” of the cartoon villain.
No one goes through life acting on impulses for no reason whatsoever. On the surface, an action may seem random and mindless. The person involved might claim there was no reason or even be accused of it—but that is a fallacy, a lame excuse they might offer to conceal the secret that really drives them.
The antagonist also gets a personnel file:
One thing we must ask of each character is this: what will happen if they don’t achieve their goal? Who has the most to lose?
Once we know who has the most to lose and what motivates each character, we know who has the most compelling story. At that point, we have our protagonist and our antagonist
In the beginning stages of planning, we see a large picture, and the details are blurry. At first, we have an overall idea of what the story could be. We have the basics of who the characters are:
- Sex and age
- Physical description—coloring, clothes
- Overall personality—light or dark, upbeat or a downer
A reader will want to know a little more than that. Good characterization shows those things but also offers hints of:
- An individual’s speech habits.
- An individual with a history.
- An individual’s personal style.
As my characters develop, I ask more questions:
- Are they an individual with or without boundaries? What are things they will or will not do?
- What are the secrets they believe no one knows?
- What are the secrets they will admit to?
- What secrets will they carry to the grave?
Sometimes identifying just whose emotional and physical journey you will be following is easier said than done. When faced with a pantheon of great characters, ask yourself these questions (listed here in no particular order):
- Which character do you find the most interesting?
- Whose personal story inspired this tale in the first place?
- Who among these people has the most to lose?
- Who will be best suited to taking full advantage of all this plot’s possibilities?
The character who best answers those questions must become the protagonist. It is okay to scrap that original draft and start a new one to reflect that change. Many parts of the first manuscript can be reused.
I recently had a manuscript undergo a complete change from what I originally planned. The original antagonist had such an engaging story that he had become more important to me than the protagonists.
At that point, the plot stalled. I had no idea how to get it going again.
I had to find a new villain—and then the solution occurred to me. One of the side characters was poised for that position, lending a little treachery to the mix.
That happy bit of treason kicked the plot in a new direction, and once again, I was having a good time, feeling energized as I wrote.
We were taught to use the “five Ws” of journalism in our essays in elementary school. These five words that begin with the letter ‘W’ form the core of every story.
Who did what? When and where did it happen?
Why did they do it?
As a reader, I dislike discovering the author is at a loss as to what their protagonist wants. Without that impetus, they don’t have a good reason for the villain to be there either. Random events inserted to keep things interesting don’t advance the story, but motivation does.
Character creation crosses all genres. Even if you are writing a memoir detailing your childhood, you must have a fix on the person you were in those days. You must portray your gut reactions, hopes, and fears with immediacy, a sense of what it felt like. You want the reader to see the events that shaped you, not through the lens of memory, but as if they are observing as the events unfold.
Who are your characters? Who do they love, and who do they despise? What is their goal? Why is this goal so important?
When you answer those questions, you will know them well enough to write their stories.