If you are reading this you will probably know what type of story you are going to write and who you are going to write it for. You have the idea, the category and the target audience all sorted and are ready to delight your readers with the twists and turns of the narrative. But have you thought about your characters? Have you asked who they are, listened to their whispers, hopes and dreams, and found out their secrets? To create convincing characters you need to know all about each one of them, their backstories, likes, dislikes, fears and loves. Yes the plot is important, and your target audience too, but it will be the characters that breathe life into your words as you live their lives with them until the tale is told.
Before listening to your characters, if you have not written a one sentence summary of your book by now it would be an idea to do this. It can be used for marketing purposes but it also focuses the mind on what your story is about in a few words. A more detailed outline should be written as well – a paragraph is fine. This may alter as the story develops, but at this stage it offers a framework for the characters to gather around as you get to know them.
If you are wondering who to include in your story, there are a few points to consider first:
a good story is propelled by contrast and unexpected turns and twists as protagonist and antagonist drive the plot in different ways.
Words woven around a protagonist have power and purpose – a character who is central and who drives the story to whatever end with his or her goals and aspirations.
You could be thinking that one of your whispering cast is an antagonist, a character who creates obstacles, causes conflict and confusion, maybe a villain plotting evil happenings, or someone with a motive to cause harm.
Or a conflict ‘character’ could arise as a force of nature, dark beyond all imagining.
Whatever you decide, you should imbue these characters with a balance of traits so that it is not too hard for your readers to relate to them. Not too powerful, not too weak so that the story has an edge and an uncertainty. A weakness in a character could be a strength. Play with ideas and think laterally and you will have your readers hanging on every word.
Also think about how the different characters view each other as they interact. What are their relationships and shared experiences.
Getting to Know You
Now you have the framework ready, and the characters are gathering, you should write a one page synopsis about each one. Give yourself a time limit and write about their place in the story: say who they are, why they are here, whether they work, or anything else that you may feel is relevant at this stage. Close your eyes and imagine you are them. Does the character feel real? Listen to your inner voice and write what you feel. Writing an early synopsis is a stepping stone to a more detailed character study at the next stage. I have to add here that characters do develop in ways that cannot be anticipated as the story unfolds and this is quite normal. But we have to start somewhere, and a synopsis is a good springboard for the journey to come.
Now do an in-depth study of each character. How detailed is up to you, but the more reality you give your cast the more convincing your storytelling will be. If I were writing a story I would include absolutely everything, even things that seem superficial and unconnected, because this would help me understand all the thoughts and emotions that my characters might have. This may not be relevant for you as it depends on the story you are telling, but the more you include, the better it will be. You do not have to embrace everything about each character in the storytelling, but this amount of detail will allow you to speak the characters’ voices with true authority and understanding.
So let us get writing. These guidelines will help you as you start to develop your ideas.
Getting physical: describe each character – height, weight, eye and hair colour, name, age, birthday, star sign, education, etc. Think about how they dress and how they look.
Getting personal: what are they like? Are they moody, happy, sad, shy, reliable, disorganised, ambitious, artistic, sentimental, antisocial or delusional? What are their philosophies and religions; do they laugh often; what are their biggest hopes and darkest fears or phobias; are they addicted to anything; what are their favourite books and films; do they have strange habits; do they like music? We are made up of all sorts of behaviours and traits, so think about combining the ones that appeal to you. Allow the characters to speak and grow, and continue until you feel they are totally believable.
Memories are made of this: there is always a backstory and memories are a part of what makes a character believable. Think about the good and bad memories, the way that a character is because of things that have happened in the past – resulting character traits, hopes for the future based on failures in the past.
A sense of place: the environment, where is home, friends and foes, pets, family, holiday likes, where were they born?
Listen to your Story’s Voice
A note here about intuition. Most writers have it and should listen to it. So, when you have completed a character study, a page, a chapter, or the book and we get that feeling of ‘I’ll just give that a tweak’, or ‘maybe that character should have purple hair not blonde’, just sit back, relax into a quiet moment and listen to your intuition. Rest quietly and the character, or whatever words you are tweaking, will speak to you. Hear what is being said and allow the story to tell its tale.
Happy story writing.
©Roz Dace 2023
Image: Gill Harry