You’re a new novelist. You want to write a wonderful novel, with exciting characters — a bestseller. So you decide you’ll develop your characters by creating extensive bios.
Not only do you know what flavor ice cream your main characters enjoy, you also know their shoe size. You hope that all this attention to detail will make creating characters easy.
After a few weeks, you realize that your characters are boring people. You find yourself plotting their death. Unfortunately, if they die, your novel dies with them. (Sob.)
New novelist: the story question is everything to your characters
Many a new novelist has happily put the cart before the horse, so to speak. The cart being an intricate plot with exciting characters (or so you hoped — how could a private eye with a background in military intelligence be so boring)?
You forgot the horse: the story question.
The point of a novel is often referred to as the “story question”, or “dramatic question.” Although the story question might not be stated overtly, it must exist for your novel to be satisfying to readers.
In many genres, the genre itself offers insight to the story question:
- In mysteries — will the sleuth find the killer?
- In romances — will the boy get the girl?
- In thrillers — will the hero save the world?
Your story question always comes first. By all means, work up character bios, but do keep your story question in mind, because it maintains your narrative drive, which is what keeps readers reading:
Something important MUST be at stake in your story. If not literal life or death, then metaphorical life or death. When there’s nothing at stake, readers don’t care, and they won’t read.
For readers to care, your characters must care.
Here are three tips which will help you to create wonderful fictional characters.
1. Create a character who will help to solve the story question
Before you create any characters, know your story question. You don’t need to know details, a story seed is fine:
- A stalker hunts Character A. Who is he, and what does he want? When she discovers what he wants, will she give it to him?
- Character A’s son vanishes. The young man drove away to start college, but never arrived. Law enforcement won’t help. Will Character A find her son?
Your story question enables you to create a character about whom readers care.
2. His past made him what he is, so…
More than the color of his hair, or his shoe size, it’s vital that you know that your character is: someone who… (fill in the blank.)
Whether you believe that someone’s character is formed by nature or nurture, a character’s past makes him who he is. Spend time creating a backstory for each of your main characters, but keep backstory OUT of your novel.
While it’s essential that you know why your main character rushes home before dark, you don’t need to elaborate on this; keep your story moving forward.
3. A quirk makes a character real, but avoid overdoing it
Creating character quirks is fun.
Your character might:
- Have a favorite pair of socks he always wears when giving a presentation;
- Rescue stray animals, until his home is a menagerie;
- Hum under his breath when driving, or checking his phone.
A character quirk or two goes a long way. More important than quirks, are a character’s attributes: your character might have a quick temper, or be secretive for no real reason.
What’s the difference between an attribute and a quirk? An attribute will affect the story question, and the plot.
For example, perhaps your main character is scared of heights (attribute.) It affects the plot, because at the novel’s climax, he has to rescue someone who’s climbed onto a bridge. The climber is ready to dive into eternity, unless your character saves him… But he’s scared of heights. Now what?
Your character’s fear affects the story; it doesn’t matter that he drinks three, and only three, cups of coffee a day (quirk.)
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