To all the young writers whom I’d hoped to meet at a workshop this spring or summer (cancelled due to Covid-19)…
If you’re stuck at home with a pen handy, why not start a story or ten?
Don’t know how to begin? I’ll take you through five easy entry points over the coming weeks. (Kind of like my writing workshop, “Five ways to start a story,” except missing the key ingredient of workshop participants, and so not as fun or useful. But still something to do.)
First up: Start with a Character.
Below you’ll find a “Build your Character” handout and a short version of my talk, “Know your Character.” (Not to be confused with next week’s talk, “Show your Character.”) Feel free to use it on your own or with a group of young writers keeping their social distance.
Who cares about character?
Cinderella is lovely, hard-working, and good-natured. We would feel differently about her story if she was a lazy brat who connived her way to the ball and moved into the castle — “See ya later, suckers!” — leaving her sweet kind sisters in poverty. It would not be the same story.
If Harry Potter was a bully? Different story. He’d join the Slytherins and they’d take over the world.
A story progresses the way it does because of its characters: who they are, what they want, and how they act and interact. Character makes a story mean what it does, too. The story of Cinderella isn’t just about a poor girl who gets to go to a ball; it’s about a mistreated kind person who gets the life she deserves.
What’s in a character?
In creating a character, you can start with some basic sets of questions:
1. The physical stuff
What species are they? (Always a good starting point.)
Gender? Age? Size and shape?
What do they they look like? (Crooked teeth? Expensive clothes? Long black hair? All over their body??)
What do they look like in comparison to everyone around them? (Unique? A visible minority? One of a thousand clones?)
Do they have any disabilities? Exceptional abilities? Superpowers?
Make your character memorable in some way.
2. The personality
How does your character behave with other people? (A leader? A loner? An outcast? An eavesdropper?)
Are they an animal lover? An athlete? An arachnophobe?
Are they helpful around the house? Selfish or thoughtful? Lazy or energetic? A protective brother or a bully?
Are they smart? Funny? Trying their best? A total jerk?
How do they spend Sunday afternoons?
Do they have quirks or traits or hobbies? (Always playing with her hair? Never gets off his phone? Collects seashells from around the world? Designs his own clothes?)
Make your character active. Even sweet Cinderella has the gumption to sneak out to the ball.
3. The facts of life
Does your character go to school? What grade? Are they passing? Excelling? What’s their favourite subject?
Does you character work? At what? Do they walk to work? Or bike? Do they like the people they work with?
Do they live on Earth? In the present day? Where exactly? On a farm? A city apartment? A toxic landfill?
Does your character live alone? With family? Brothers and sisters? Pets? Do they have their own room? What’s their favourite thing in it?
4. The inner life
Does your character believe in god? In ghosts? In karma?
Do they believe that life is fair? That the strong should help the weak? That you should take whatever you can before someone takes it from you?
What would your character call a good life? Acquiring money? Having friends? Experiencing adventure? Making history?
What makes your character happy? Sad? What memory do they cherish? What fantasy do they hold dear?
What are they afraid of? And most importantly: what do they want?
There are two levels to what characters want: the immediate specific goal; and the deeper need it fulfills. Remember Cinderella. She wants to go to the ball. But what she really wants is a break from drudgery. Even readers who hate to dance can relate to that.
So maybe your character wants to win a singing contest. But what she really wants is to be admired.Or your character wants to solve a crime. But what he really wants is justice. Or your character wants to find a good hiding spot. But what she really wants is not to die. That’s a classic.
If your character lives in a world completely different from yours, consider giving them different values or beliefs or habits. Or have them struggle against the beliefs of their time. Setting always affects character.
For example, expressive children weren’t encouraged in the 18th century; they were beaten. Girls weren’t encouraged to be scientists, boys weren’t encouraged to be nurses, homosexuality was against the law, and almost everyone was brutally racist. These things affect individuals. If you create a character affected by such things, they will seem more real.
You certainly don’t have to make a character who fits into their setting — great stories are often about people who challenge the world — but make the character and setting react to each other.
You can Start with a Setting and then come back to character. Or go from here to there and back again.
Now build your character
You can use this handy handout to help build your character.
Start with a real person — maybe yourself or someone your know, someone in the news or in a history book. Or invent a character unlike anyone seen before — a sinister alien, a kind-hearted demon, a genius caveman. Or expand on a character in a story you’ve already begun. In a pinch, take a fictional character you’ve read and change something about them, e.g., Percy Jackson as Persephone Jackson — would she be different as a girl? Rusty and the Warriors as hyenas? Cinderella’s godmother as a wicked witch?
Just begin. Forcing yourself to come up with details often results in something really interesting. Try it. You’ll be amazed by how creative you are. Start with one character trait and ask questions. Soon you’ll know your character so well, you’ll be ready to show them to your reader — but more on that next week.