Because I chose a character-driven focus for my story, I started with character development. If I wanted to write a story line for characters that don’t exist, I could easily start with a story-driven approach first, and then just fill in characters to suit the story afterward.
Every author has their own criteria for what’s important to them in their characters, and there isn’t really a set standard for how many characters you should have or how you should develop them. In my case, I started off with three to keep it simple, and then built off of that.
When I wrote the first draft of Roaming Cadenza I was in high school, so I chose to use high school students as protagonists. I chose to use two high-schoolers, and a college drop out to give them an adult perspective on the world. Once I had these three developed with some backstory, I was able to draft the first few concept chapters to see what I could do with them.
Note that these “concept chapters” are not real story chapters or anything like that, but working with the characters in the basic idea I had for a setting to see if I could write them well enough to do it for a novel. Of course it was rough, but the writing was functional, which meant I could keeping doing it, and just needed to keep writing for these characters to get a good feel on how to flesh them out.
While there isn’t specific criteria for character development, these are a few tips I’ve found helpful:
– Unique names. How many Johns have you read about? How many Marys or Michaels? There are a myriad of names from thousands of cultures. Even if you’re writing for one specific culture or audience, it doesn’t mean you can’t branch out and try something new. For Roaming Cadenza, names like Alma and Cris aren’t necessarily American standard-fair, but they still work just fine for American audiences. The name “Geroge” came about from a typo, but I liked it and it worked. If anyone ever talks about a Geroge, you’ll know exactly what they’re talking about, instead of asking, “Geroge? What’s that from?”
– Characters with weaknesses. People who can do it all due to their natural perfection aren’t really believable, but more importantly, are boring because there is no threat or any way to create real drama for them, which is where stories thrive. An example is this clip from Futurama in which Fry creates an invincible superhero. What makes this clip work well is actually Zoidberg’s weakness as an incompetent doctor, which the writers turn into good humor. Point: Weakness can work very well when written properly, but at the very least adds dimensions to your characters.
– Show, don’t tell. This is one of my personal weaknesses as a writer that I constantly strive to improve. Let’s your character is frustrated with a situation. It’s all too easy to write, “Maribel sat there frustrated.”. This tells us, the audience, exactly what’s on Maribel’s mind, which means there’s no room for interpretation. Some writers like this approach, and that’s fine if it’s what you’re going for, but if you want to flesh out your characters and give readers a chance to think about them beyond what you wrote, don’t always spell out what’s on your characters’ minds. Something like “Maribel sat there, repeatedly tapping her fingers on the arm of her chair as the minutes passed by,” delivers roughly the same message while giving the reader an opportunity to paint their own picture of Maribel.
– Dialogue. A very important and often overlooked aspect of writing characters is dialogue. Remember, people are different. They come from different places, have different backgrounds, and most importantly, don’t speak in Standardized American English (for American writers). Dialects, phrases, expressions, and general speech should vary from person to person. For example, you might have a character that has a speech impediment, or adds the letter “S” to everything “S-sees yas!” Or you might have one that uses elaborate words but has a country accent, “He’s quite the eleemosynary fellow, ya’ know?” Up to you, but even if they’re all from the same region, provide some variety between your characters. Even if it means that they just don’t say much at all.
*A note on character backstories: it might seem like a good idea to tell your audience about your character all at once, so they get a feel for them, but that was one of my biggest rookie mistakes. I had an introduction with each of the main character’s backstories. For a novel, one of the best parts is gradually learning about the characters and who they are, but also wondering what’s going through their minds and what’s going on with them. Giving that information away too early, or too quickly, really takes away from the mystery and allure of learning about a person. After all, it’s like the old cliché about sleeping with a person on the first date—once you’ve slept with them there’s no mystery left (so says Rilo Kiley). So keep your characters literary virgins for a while so the audience can get to know them before you go and start popping those cherries.
How Do I Start?
This section assumes that you have an idea of what kind of piece you want to write, and roughly who it might be for. If you don’t know these things, that’s ok, you can figure it out along the way. One of the key tenets of writing is revision, so no matter what you decide initially, you should always remain flexible about changing it later as needed.
I’m going to write this from my POV (point of view, or perspective) for Roaming Cadenza, which is a novel written for young adult readers, but this can be applied to any kind of writing.
So I’ve decided I’m going to write a novel, which I plan to write for adult readers. I could specify it more toward young adult or more mature adults, men or women, black or white, main stream or indie, and so on, but honestly I just don’t care that much. I enjoy niche material from time to time, but I don’t usually care to write it. I wanted to be able to generate some amount of interest with any person I talk to about it, so I wanted to keep it somewhat general avoid scaring people off.
Now that I’ve decided I want to write a novel for young adult readers, the big question is: what should it be about? At the time of this writing, vampires and fantasy are pretty popular topics in American main stream culture, so those would be easy topics to start with. However, if one is trying to stand out as a new author, you might want to try something other than what everyone else is doing to help your work stand out. Besides, after so many vampire books being published in the last year, I’m of the mind that people would probably get sick of them pretty quickly.
You can draw from every day experiences, or what I’d recommend, something you know very well. Most forms of writing require some amount of technical knowledge about the topic, so writing about something you’re familiar with can be immensely helpful down the road (although you can learn a lot doing research and writing about a new topic too—just make sure you double check and verify all your facts, preferably with an actual person who knows them).
For Roaming Cadenza, I chose to write an adventure novel about four friends on a road trip learning about life, not because it wasn’t fantasy or vampires, but because I wanted to write something people could actually relate to. I wrote a story about things that could actually happened to people. Even though reading is an escape and requires some suspension of disbelief , I personally enjoy reading things that seem possible, even if unlikely, which is why I went with this concept.
Story vs. Character
The main concept is four friends going on a road trip across the United States. We have a starting point. Now we need two things: a plot, and people to play along with it aka characters.
This is an important junction in story writing as it requires the writer to determine whether they want their piece or be story-driven or character-driven. The difference is that story-driven pieces focus on the plot and involve characters in it, whereas character-driven pieces focus on personal or individual development, and more or less require the plot to be based on the characters involved.
An example of story-driven writing is ABC’s popular television show Lost. It’s about a mysterious island, and what happens on it. The main focus is on the plot, and what is going to happen with the storyline. The characters matter, but they aren’t central to the plot (as evidenced by the fact most of them die) and are dragged into whatever is going on with the island itself. As an audience, we don’t learn much about many of the characters, and for the ones we do, what we learn about them doesn’t matter much beyond the scope of each individual episode, since it’s the story itself that matters.
An example of character-driven writing is pretty much anything written by Joss Whedon and his crew, but I’ll focus on Buffy: The Vampire Slayer for easy reference. The show is primarily about Buffy’s life, and the people involved in it. It focuses on central themes like high school, family, and growing up. The plot is based on what’s going on in Buffy’s life, and is directly related to it. Each storyline is focused on the characters first, with all other story considerations involved coming second.
Now, no matter which writing style you choose, you still need to have a good story and good characters to have effective story writing. Amazing characters mean nothing if they’re only sitting around eating cake. Conversely, no amount of fantastical plot-writing in the world can make boring one-dimensional characters interesting.
It is possible to write so as to combine these styles and create a story that focuses both on story and characters, but starting off it tends to be easier to focus on just one. Trying to do both doesn’t necessarily make a story better, and can easily detract from what you’re trying to do if it isn’t done properly. Realistically, as long a piece has a strong storyline and good characters, it can be a solid piece regardless of the focus.
Linked is a Character Development video I did a while back that goes a little more in-depth.