Preptober Week Two: Characters

Welcome to the second week of Preptober! This week, I’m focusing on developing my characters.

Believable characters are unique and three-dimensional, but there’s a lot to consider. Each character has specific attributes, like appearance, personality, and a backstory, that make them relatable. A character’s motivations inform their actions and decisions, creating the narrative arc of the story. Your character’s voice will establish the mood of the story.

The Save the Cat! Method

I’m well aware that I recommended Save the Cat! last week. It’s a great resource for plot structuring AND for character development. Which makes sense, the events of your story progress with the character’s development.

In Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, author Jessica Brody identifies three key things you need to know about your character. If you start with these three things, the story will start to take shape even in the very early stages.

Your character will need:

  • A problem (a flaw that needs fixing)
  • A want (a goal that they are pursuing)
  • A need (a life lesson to be learned)

Tell me more!

Once you have an idea of your character’s problem, want, and need, it’s time to round out your character and give them more. Especially with a main character, it takes a lot of thought to flesh them out to feel authentic with depth.

Motivation – ties back to the problem, want, and need. All the character’s actions in the story will connect back to this.

Central conflict (generally the story’s catalyst) – This will tie in with the want/goal your character is pursuing. This will be the biggest point of pressure pushing them into action.

Backstory –What happened to the character before page one? What experiences gave them the flaws they will overcome during the narrative?

Flaws – These are all the quirks, shortcomings, fears, bias, and limitations your character possesses. This is closely tied to the story’s problem and these flaws are resolved (note: resolved does not mean fixed) upon the completion of the arc.

False belief – This is the lie the character tells themselves. “I will be happy when…” “This is how I can solve my problems…” “I’m fine,” etc. This will lead them to try to solve their problem incorrectly, which creates engaging trial and error in the plot.

Physical attributes – Define what the character looks like, how they dress, how they carry themselves, etc. This is a great opportunity to have a few unique attributes that make a character memorable. Scars or tattoos are common unique physical attributes.

Interests – give your character hobbies, favorite foods, or a game that they obsess over. Adding character interests gives characters dimension. Each detail you add is like a new stroke of watercolor on a canvas and is potentially ways for a reader to connect.

Planning out character arcs

When developing a story, you’re piecing together plot elements that will sequence into your story and your character’s involvement in said sequence.

Your character arc will be the internal reactions to the external plot. As such, it can be plotted out as one would plot the structure of a novel. Give your character a starting point and a goal, i.e., a need and a want. 

Then map out the character’s successes and failures toward achieving the goal and reaching an end point. The story will end with the character having a positive arc, a negative arc, or a static arc. Meaning they change for the better, the worse, or not at all.

You get to have the fun of deciding how your character will emotionally change through the story and what the ending state is. Sometimes it is easier to plan out the starting and ending character states and then plan out the pinch points in between.

Creating character voice

I might have to do an entire article on this topic. Your point of view (POV) characters will be the most important to distinguish, but it’s important to get everyone. Adding diversity to dialogue will be a boon to your story, and it even helps shape smaller characters when defined well. Voice also includes body language and mannerisms in which a character presents themselves.

Character voice should be distinct for every character. The personality you’ve dreamed up for the character will come through with voice. Aspects such as word choice and jargon will become crucial factors.

A good activity to develop character voice is to write scenes or journal entries from the perspective of non-POV characters. Try taking the same scene and write it from multiple POVs. Each character should notice and react to things differently because it is based upon their unique personality, interests, and stakes within the situation.

Create a character readers connect to

Readers don’t often relate to major plot events personally, and for good reason, considering the traumatic experiences we throw at our characters. They do, however, relate to characters. Relatable character will evoke relatable emotions

Give the readers a “way in”. Give characters relatable quirks and universal traits. Take inspiration from your personal experiences and use details from people you know in real life to bolster things out.

Mold your characters around the themes woven through your story. Themes are guaranteed to present a relatable concept that a reader can latch onto. This could include love, lust, grief, power, coming of age, a crisis of identity, etc..

Populate your story

Even if the story takes place entirely inside one character’s head, there’s still a good chance secondary characters exist and need to be developed. They could populate the memories and backstory of the main character or they could be the environment or personified objects, like Wilson in Castaway.

Or secondary characters could follow any of the traditional archetypes.

Secondary character types you might want to include:

  • Antagonist
  • Love interest
  • Side kick/ Confidant
  • Mentor
  • Guardian

That’s just to name a few. When thinking about your secondary and tertiary characters, examine who is close to the main character and their significance. Consider who is supporting your character’s journey or opposing it. (It’s also fun when supportive characters intentionally or unintentionally create conflict for the MC.)

Build up your secondary character’s backstory and provide them with their own individual problems, wants, and needs. Essentially, your secondary should be modeled enough that they could be the protagonist of their own story if the focus was flipped.

It’s important to flesh out your main character and supporting cast to give the plot richness and authenticity. However, you will most likely have files of information that don’t make the cut.

The iceberg method

I’ll definitely drill deeper into this next week when I go into world building and extras, but this is useful for characters too.

The iceberg method refers to the fact that only a small tip of an iceberg appears above the surface, but the majority exists underwater. In writing, this means you only put a small amount of the information on the page, but you have a trove that isn’t shared.

 You will have more information about your characters than what needs to go into the story. That isn’t a bad thing. Having a deep understanding of your character allows you to make informed decisions about how they will handle situations the plot throws at them.

Don’t get caught up trying to tell the reader every minute detail. Just because you know their favorite food is grilled cheese because their mom makes it as an after-school snack, it might not be relevant to include into the story.

Be aware of character info-dumping. Introduce characters with brevity and reveal more and more about them in smaller spurts as the story continues.

Helpful Resources

Fun Character Development Activities

Thanks for reading! I’ll see you next week for World Building and Extras. Happy Writing!

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