I think about her favorite Chinese takeout, how often and how long she looks at herself in the mirror. These details may seem mundane, but detail builds character.
The girl who orders vegetarian’s delight and curls her hair each morning is not the same girl who stuffs her face with crab rangoon and avoids looking at her reflection in the mirror. The more details I add, the more I discover. The more I discover, the easier it is to write!
But no matter how much detail I create in the beginning, there are always moments where I find myself stuck. I think, “What would my protagonist say in this situation? Is she doing what she would actually do or what I need her to do?”
In these moments I turn to the very basics of character, and here are a few rules and exercises to help you build your own epic story characters!
1. Create a Compelling Backstory
Personally, I am not a fan of books that start out with backstory. Backstory is not the story, story is the story. But even if it isn’t included, backstory is an essential part of building your character because it's a way of introducing yourself to your character.
If you know who your protagonist has been for the past fifteen years of her life, you know who she is on page 1. You understand how she walks and how she talks, what baggage she’s carrying and what she dreams about at night.
You’ve probably imagined the key events of your protagonist’s life, but go deeper. Here’s a few questions to ask your protagonist as you get started:
- What’s your protagonist’s family like?
- Where does she live? Where did she grow up?
- What kind of school did she go to? How many friends does she have? What was her favorite subject? Her least favorite subject?
- What does she want to be? Has she always wanted to be that?
- Has she ever dated anyone? Who was her first boyfriend/girlfriend? What was he/she like?
Play a game of 21 questions until you know your protagonist inside out!
2. Know Your Goal
Think of your favorite story. What is it about? A quest for love? For justice? Characters make up the heart of every story, but goals make up the heart of every character.
A character with a goal is automatically a story about someone struggling to reach that goal and fighting opponents who try and keep them from that goal. In The Maze Runner Thomas wants to discover the truth. In The Hunger Games Katniss wants to save her sister.
Whoever your character is, you must decide what they are striving to achieve. Once you do, you will see your story fall into place. Consider the story that is created from Katniss’s main goal in The Hunger Games:
Goal: To protect her sister, Prim
- The Reaping
- The Hunger Games/The Capitol
- The Arena
- The Gamekeeper/President Snow
While these events may appear to be exciting plot points, they are each opponents and obstacles that try and keep Katniss from protecting Prim. Even when the Hunger Games become a fight for survival, they are still a fight for Prim—who’s going to protect her if Katniss is dead?
So think long and hard about your character’s goal. Once that is set, you will be one crucial step closer to building your character and your story.
3. Identify Important Values
Values are important because they influence how your character will act in any given situation. Think of our beloved Hermione Granger in The Sorcerer’s Stone. From the beginning, Hermione sets herself apart from the crowd as an intelligent and gifted witch. While this may seem like her skill, it is also indicative of what she values: knowledge.
Because she values knowledge, her instinct in any major conflict is to find the answer by using her greatest source of knowledge: the library.
When the gang searches for answers to the sorcerer’s stone, Hermione discovers the answer in a library. When a creature terrorizes the halls of Hogwarts in The Chamber of Secrets, Hermione discovers the creature’s identity by doing what she does best: visiting the library.
While Harry and Ron aren’t stupid, they don’t value knowledge so their first instinct is never to run to the library. Harry throws on his invisibility cloak to investigate. Ron…well Ron is Ron. Either way, you can see that what a character values most will show you how they choose to act in any given situation. So think about it—what’s important to your protagonist?
4. Pick Real Weaknesses
I love comic books, but I hate Superman. I can’t understand society’s fascination with him or why when we have an infinite universe of superheroes Hollywood keeps making new movies about him (besides the money). He may be an alien, but he is unbelievably boring. How can a tall, handsome, strong and valiant man be boring, you ask? Because he has no real weaknesses!
Think about it. Unless you’re a mega-nerd/well-versed in Wikipedia, the only weakness you can think of is Kryptonite. Superman’s weakness is a rock. That sucks (but the song is pretty awesome). It means in any battle Superman will dominate, or his opponent will throw a rock at him and he’ll crumble like a potato (if potatoes crumbled).
We love to build our characters and think of dramatic climaxes in which they will vanquish their opponents, but we have to remember a story needs conflict and that means our characters need weaknesses.
This weakness needs to make sense and be a true liability (not a stupid rock). Maybe your character struggles with addiction. Maybe she actively pushes people away and is alone when she needs help the most.
Think long and hard about this one, because your protagonist’s weakness will be something they struggle or fail to overcome during the story.
So there you have it! Use these tools and prompts as you create your characters from scratch or revise to make them feel more real.
Dig as deep as you can, because the more realistic you make your protagonist the more connected your readers will feel when they are introduced.
Have other character building suggestions? Let me know if the comments!
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