Saturday, July 16, 2011

Developing main characters

Developing a main character can be one of the most difficult aspects of writing a novel, particularly when working in first person. How can you make your character stand out? What part of their voice is unique?

As a writer I’ve struggled a great deal with character development, and up until last year I didn’t have a very good grasp of how to create compelling protagonists. I’ve improved a lot since then but I’m always looking for opportunities to get better. I think, as writers, it’s helpful to talk about the areas in which we struggle, so I thought I’d do a post with some tips on creating main characters.

1. Focus on reaction, not action. Sometimes I find it helpful to mentally insert my character into a hypothetical situation. For instance, let’s say your main character’s best friend is giving them the cold shoulder. Does your main character get sad? Angry? Resentful? Do they ask what’s wrong, or do they respond by ignoring their friend in return? Figure out how your character reacts and what basic emotions drive them, and then base their actions upon events.

    2. Figure out your main character’s driving emotional force. Usually it’s easy to identify a driving physical force - this is the plot, or the goal your character is trying to attain. In Harry Potter, Harry is trying to defeat Lord Voldemort so he can save himself and his friends. But what’s his driving emotional force? For Harry, I’d say it all goes back to the death of his parents and his desire to have a family. This emotional force permeates all seven books and drastically influences Harry’s actions (think of all his pseudo-father-figures, such as Sirius and Dumbledore). The driving emotional force should probably be even more prevalent in your story than the driving physical force.

      3. It’s not what your character thinks, it’s HOW they think it (I feel like I’ve done a post on this before...have I? If so, sorry for the redundancy). This one sentence completely altered my view on developing protagonists. Everybody thinks differently, and if you can discover how your character thinks/what they focus on, you can integrate it into your story. When I wrote The Color of Yin, I decided that my main character would have synesthesia - when other people speak, she sees their words as different colors in the air (her mother has orange words, her sister has purple words, etc). Yin comes to associate different colors with different emotions, and whenever she thinks she thinks in terms of color. Knowing this about my main character really helped me develop her story. There are so many different ways to do this...if your character is methodical, maybe they make lists in their head. Maybe they count things when they get nervous. Identify how your character thinks, and use it as a basis to determine what they think.

      4. Map out your character's deepest fears and desires. What do they have nightmares about? Do they have any phobias? How do they deal with fear? In a life threatening situation, do they run or fight? If they had three wishes, what would they be?

        So there you have it....some tips for developing unique protagonists. If you have tips of your own, don’t hesitate to share them in the comments! We’re all writers here (mostly) and we can all learn from each other.


        1. Great ideas for developing your main character. I use a character map first and think about the overall makeup of the character. Some topics on the map are: biggest fears, dreams, goals, how do other people see him/her, how does the character see himself/herself, and an interview with the character in his/her voice.

        2. I especially liked #1. I'm not sure I've tried that one before. Or at least, I'm thinking about it differently now. Thanks Kate!