A story can’t exist without characters.
But with all the different character creation lists out there, it can be difficult to know where to start.
For me, that starting point is first knowing the role the character is going to play in the story.
Once I know that, picking character traits and everything else is a lot easier because I already have a sense of who I want the character to be and I can build around that.
People are defined by their experiences and the things they do.
I believe the conflict my characters face and the actions they take in response show the core of who they are.
This gives me the start I need, and I can learn more about them as I write the first draft.
I don’t need to know their favorite color or the name of their first pet.
Small things like that can be worked in during the revision phase after I’ve discovered more about my character. If I need them.
Trying to figure out every little detail beforehand not only wastes my time but loads me up with details I might not even use or care about.
And trying to find a piece of information in a mess is a pain.
Everybody builds characters differently, but the basic roles tend to remain the same.
Who is the main character(s) telling the story? They should have a personal connection to the plot and a stake in how it all ends.
Give them a name and summarize what you know about them—their backstory, how the story affects them, what they’re going to do about it, and how they’re going to change as a result.
Make sure to give them a goal, the motivation to reach it, something personal at stake if they fail, and a flaw they have to overcome to reach their goal.
You don’t have to know every little detail about them, just enough to get started.
You can always add to it in later revisions as you get to know the character(s).
Antagonists usually take more work than protagonists.
When we start first start coming up with ideas, we usually think of the hero and the trials they might face.
The enemy is usually a faceless villain—merely a representation of the conflict they might face.
To have a story, we have to make the antagonist real. We have to give them a name and follow the same steps as before.
When you’re finished, they should be just as defined as the protagonist.
It may help to think of them as the hero of their own story as you build them.
No one is inherently pure evil. Everyone has good and bad sides.
We may see what they’re doing as wrong, but to them, it should make sense based on their background and the trials they have faced in reaching this point.
They should have their own goals, motivations, and stakes in the plot.
They should be just as determined to succeed as the protagonist (if not more) and something to lose if they fail.
As you summarize them, think of all the conflict they might cause and how it might involve your protagonist.
The more you develop your antagonist and their goals, the easier it will be to write your story.
Characters Supporting the Protagonist
What other characters support your character’s goals in this story? They can friends, family, love interests, mentors, or just people they meet along the way.
You don’t have to know them all. Some you might decide to add in later.
But you should at least have an idea of who’s going to play a role in helping your protagonist(s).
Name and summarize each one.
You don’t have to go into as much detail as you did your main characters. But you should know a little about them and the role they’ll play in the story.
Be sure to give each one their own goals and motivations (whether they align with the protagonist’s or not). This will give them depth and purpose to make them more realistic.
For any characters you think you might need but don’t yet know their role in the story, create a list. Don’t worry about building them yet.
If you decide you need them after the first draft, you can work them out then.
Don’t make more work for yourself than you need to.
Hint: Every character needs to contribute to the story in some way.
If they don’t, then they serve no purpose and are taking up valuable space in your story.
Give them a reason to be there, combine characters, or eliminate them. Don’t weigh the story down with useless characters.
Characters Against the Protagonist
Not only should the antagonist have allies, but there should also be other characters causing conflict for the protagonist as well.
These are people who don’t like them and like to stir up trouble for them or just want to see them suffer.
This kind of conflict won’t play a major part in the story but should be related to the external or internal conflict in some way.
For example: The protagonist is interested in a woman, but her brother doesn’t feel he’s good enough for her.
The woman refuses to listen to her brother, so he spreads nasty rumors about the protagonist in the hopes his sister will drop him and find someone better.
In the example above, perhaps the protagonist already has a low sense of self-worth and had difficulty telling the woman he was interested in her.
He begins to wonder if everyone is right that he isn’t good enough for her. So instead of her dropping him, he breaks it off instead.
When creating these kinds of characters, you must know why they don’t like the protagonist, decide what they might do to cause conflict, and what they want as a result of their actions.
Only add those who serve the story and name and summarize them as before.
The Love Interest
Not every story will have a love interest, but for those that do, there are some specifics you need to cover.
There needs to be a good reason the couple is interested in each other.
You need to know what draws them to the other, how their differences complement each other, and what each wants from the relationship.
This should go beyond merely lust or attraction.
They should be able to look beyond each other’s flaws and accept their partner for who they are.
Name and summarize them and be sure to give them their own goals and motivations that center on their circumstances but also further the plot in some way.
When you have finished, each role should be filled by at least one character, giving you a minimum of four characters (five if you have a love interest).
You should know their names, the roles they play, their goals and motivations, and what kind of conflict (internal or external) they will face or cause for another.
At this point, you should know enough about your characters to start plotting the major turning points of your story.
How do you build your characters? Do you have to know every little detail to get started or only the basics?
FOR FURTHER READING
Renea strives to help writers develop the focus and skills they need to finish their first novel, offering writers practical writing advice they can apply one step at a time.
She is the author of Conquering Writing Pressures: Living a Balanced Writing Life in a Busy World where she helps writers find the courage to accept life will never be perfect. And if we want our dreams to succeed, we must fight to make them a reality.
She currently lives in St. Joseph, Missouri, with her husband Joe, her three children, and her five lovable furballs.
From a young age, Renea was mad for books and reading, and especially loved Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, which she read in the ninth grade.
She is an avid reader, with her main interests residing in history, mythology, and fantasy, along with some romance and science fiction in her earlier years.
When Renea’s not writing, she enjoys genealogy, role-playing games, and dreams of traveling the world. In a past life, she plucked chickens and milked cows.