THIS ARTICLE IS THE FIRST IN A FIVE-PART SERIES, 'MAKING A STORY'. THE EXAMPLES USED ARE TAKEN FROM MY RECENT NOVELLA, THE HIDDEN SOUL. IT HELPS IF YOU'VE READ IT FIRST, BUT IT'S NOT NECESSARY. (ALTHOUGH I HOPE YOU DO!)
I wrote a piece awhile back that illustrated each one of us as the 'protagonist' of our own stories. Now we're going to harness that analogy and put it to good use here. We're going to write about people.
Characters have to be real people. And real people have a lot that comes along with them. Name, age, occupation, habits, hobbies, pet peeves, faults, likes, dislikes..... It can get to be overwhelming. There is a lot that has to go into every single character, even if they're on the 'screen' for only a few minutes.
So here, we're going to try to break it down. I've read on many different occasions that you should have a 'character bio' sheet planned out before you write. It's sort of like an interview for each character, and they claim that it makes your writing easier.
As a panster (and never a planner), I have found that method to be pretty useless in my own writing. Yeah, you can plot and graph and make a character up front, but it's going to sound like just that: an interview. You'll end up with a generic John Smith type character that doesn't seem alive.
And as writers, our main focus is for every aspect of our story to be alive.
So here's my method:
Let the characters tell you who they are.
I'm serious. Don't set out to write a character. Just start writing, and eventually it'll come to you.
I'll give you my personal example. When I first set out to write my novella, I only had two characters: the main character (Marcus) and his friend (who was nameless at the time). The only reason the main character had a name was because that was the only Roman name I knew. No fanfare, just “Okay, we'll make him a Marcus”.
I then just started to write. I usually get the plot first, then setting, then little bits of characters, then I just start writing. As I went along, the main character took shape. I didn't want him to be a typical Roman, so what was a way to make him completely different? Make him hate death and killing. Okay, why was he like that? Then I moved into backstory.
It all ended up flowing, because I didn't put my creativity on hold just so I could have a pretty character. I let them tell me what they wanted to be like.
When I got to supporting characters, it became more interesting. Those take longer to form. One character ended up having two names that sounded the same, and I almost published it that way! Another character who only had a few scenes was nameless until almost the end. And one character was simply called 'Bob' until I found an authentic Roman name for him :)
The particulars will come later. As you write, they'll come into focus: Their likes and dislikes, their hair and eye color, their quirks and idiosyncrasies, all of it. The situations you put them in and the actions you make them do will bring out who they really are, and turn them into real people.
To you and the reader.
It's important to have an all-around character, one that people can believe and relate to. But it's also important to have an all-around story, and if the details get in the way of the story, they must be put aside until the time is right. Then your characters will do what they're meant to do:
Bring the story to life.