Ahh, character. Characters are the lifeblood of the story. They are the chicken at the center of the Turducken that is your story. I actually had to Google the proper order of the Turducken.
Many writers are so fixated on the plot and the worldbuilding and the Aint It Cool factor of their story that they forget about the most important part: the characters. Many a Hollywood movie features bland cardboard cutouts that could be swapped for one another with no one noticing. See: 98% of action movies made. They feature a story – and sometimes barely that – that must occur in a certain way. The character simply stumble along because the plot demands it. That doesn’t mean you should do it.
The last two entries talked extensively about goals and motivation, and for good reason. These are the things that will define your character, and that in turn will drive your story. The characters are the reader’s connection to the story. They are the vehicle through which the reader experiences the thrills and chills of your delightful plot.
I’m probably going to step on some toes, but I think that a lot of people get character work wrong. A lot of people want to fill out these massive questionnaires that describe a thousand superficial things about the character and never really know the important stuff.
- What is your favorite ice cream?
- What color are your eyes?
- What kind of pets do you have?
Here’s what I care about:
- What keeps you awake at night?
- What do you fear losing more than anything else?
- If the world ended tomorrow and you could do nothing to stop it, what would you do with your last twenty-four hours?
I may not answer these questions specifically, but these are about the core of your character, not the fluff. This is the chicken, not the turkey. No one is going to care what ice cream your character likes if they can’t connect with their heart.
So before you worry about details like what they look like or their morning routine or their creepy doll collection, worry about who they are. I have a character worksheet I shared with a workshop several months ago, and I’m going to repost those questions.
- What is your core need? (What do you want most?)
- What do you fear? (Go deep past the spiders and clowns; are you afraid of dying alone? Are you afraid of letting down your family?)
- What past wounds are you carrying that have changed how you feel about yourself? (Do you believe you’ll never find love because of a failed relationship? Do you believe you’re not worth loving because a parent abandoned you? Do you believe you can’t be forgiven for something you once did?)
CS Lakin has a great post here about the core of the character. Her questions are similar to mine, and it’s worth a read to understand why they’re so important.
Real people are more complex. Your character might have two or three or fifteen past wounds. For now, focus on a big one. You have to start somewhere.
Again, I think plot and character develop together. You probably already have some rough ideas about your plot and your protagonist. What kind of character would have the most potential for conflict in the kind of story you’re thinking about? For instance, if you’re going to write an action thriller where the main character will be running for their life, the protagonist probably shouldn’t have a past wound of being made fun of in grade school that made them isolated and afraid to make friends. It would make more sense to have a past that made them fear being out of control and not being safe, or not being able to protect someone they loved. You must know what your character wants and keep it from them. Know what they fear and make them face it.
Everything else, and I mean everything, is secondary to these core questions. Know this and you know the character better than you know most people in your life.
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