Dec 2, 2017

The Write-A-Story Calendar Day 2: Cool Characters

Okay, now that you've got your story idea, you need characters. I realise that for some writers it's the other way around, which is probably even better in terms of having the characters create the story. However you go about it, you want your characters to have agency, have them shape the story instead of being swept along, or worse, being just mindless automatons you're moving around on a whim.

For a short story, it's better to have a limited cast, only a few fully realised characters. Of course you get to have some extras and secondary characters with more limited roles, but you don't want to squander your word count on nonessential personnel. Short stories are all about economising, so think about which characters you need for the story. Can some of them be combined so one character will do instead two? Can they perform multiple functions on another level, too, like acting as an archetype (a mentor, for example) and also be a mirror character (more on these in a later post, but they provide a reflection of the protagonist, distorted or clear).

Have the main characters figured out? Okay. Which one's your protagonist? Are you sure? She should be the one with the most to lose and she should be interesting enough that people will want to stick with her for the duration of the story. Fine, sometimes you want the bland everyman protagonist or the story isn't told from the protagonist's point of view, like Dr Watson narrating Sherlock Holmes' adventures to maintain a distance and mystery, but this should be a conscious narrative choice, not stumbled into.

All your main characters should feel individual and not like stock characters or stereotypes. A lot of the time it helps to add backstory (not necessarily into the story, but you should know it) and some quirks and habits to the character. Think about what the audience would expect this kind of character to be and then subvert that expectation.

So, what makes a character interesting? Think about the people you know, anyone interesting there? Does someone stand out? Why? Is there a trait you could borrow for your main character? Google eccentric individuals and think about what makes them tick, or pick a favourite character from a movie or book to base your main character on. Don't copy a character outright, but make him or her your own. What if you too the basic essence of that character, separate from the story he inhabits? Changed his gender, added twenty years and different life experiences?

To have agency you need to have the character want something, and there needs to be something at stake. Don't think too small with the stakes, go for broke. Odds are your story will be more interesting.

You'll probably need an antagonist too, although the environment can also act as the antagonist, for example. Take the same care with building the antagonist as you did with the protagonist and the secondary characters. Also this about the story from the antagonist's point of view. She is the protagonist of her own story. And don't make the antagonist pure evil. Shades of grey are much more interesting. She doesn't have to be a good person, but we should understand why she does what she does.

I'll talk about dialogue in a later post, but do take a moment to think about how your character talks. Does she have an accent? Does she use big words? How does her gender and background affect how she speaks? And most important, what about her personality, how does that affect word choice, what she says, and how she says it?

Also think about what the characters look like, how they move, things like that. Is there something you can use to "tag" the character in the reader's mind, something that they subconsciously associate with the character?

You can also start to think a bit about how the character will change during the story, but we'll get to the specifics later.
Okay, that's it for today. Happy character building!

Previous posts:

Day 1: The Big Idea

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