It All Starts with Character


What does it mean to say it all starts with character? 

You have a story in your head.

You have an idea beginning to come out.

The concept is clear. A person, a woman? a man? a being of higher intelligence no a quest for an item, or sitting with their mother discussing the funeral arrangements of the father. Perhaps you are thinking of a magical world, or a science fiction universe. These ideas aren't about character, but plot or setting. You know you have a twist you want to implement; you understand the twists and turns a protagonist (a hero) must face. But where do you really begin?

Where is your fantasy world? It is another Anglo European medieval setting with knights clad in armor, kings and queens ruling from stone castles? Is your magical destination a world of elves and wizards or one of witches in a school? Does your science fiction universe take place on a ship or a distant planet? Does your romance deal with two lovers in Regency England or two lovers in contemporary New York? 

I could go on. Should I? Or should I get to the point? 

The point is, plots can feel similar; settings may overlap; you as a creator may be more influenced by the stories that have come before than you realize. That doesn't mean you should stop your story. That doesn't mean you are telling the wrong story.

This is why it starts with character.

Look at the Star Wars universe. The Mandalorian is a very different character than Luke Skywalker, than Princess Leia Organa, than Han Solo. Following the Mandalorian creates a completely different story, even if set in the same universe, on the same plant, during the same battle.








Character Changes Everything

If you replaced Harry Potter with Hermione Granger, the story would be completely different, even if it ended up in the same place. Why? Because Hermione Granger is a different person, who makes different decisions, who sees things differently based on her perspective. Most likely, she would not have broken the rules her first year at Hogwarts. Most likely, she would not have become close to Hagrid without Harry nearby. Most likely, her manner of gathering evidence and pursuing justice would have shown up much differently on the page.

I freely admit character and plot work together, but the plot, wherever it leads, will be shaped by the character's decisions and actions. It is incredibly obvious in a story when the author wants one thing but the character wants another; when a turn in the plot or a reaction by a character feels forced. In that moment, even if the audience doesn't know exactly what is wrong, it's clear the author is forcing an event because they need a specific thing to happen that no longer feels organic to the story the character was telling.

 Perhaps the character needed to turn left; everything told the reader and the character left was the obvious choice in their position, but they turn right. But why? For what reason? If it feels inorganic and without purpose, we as an audience loses our connection to the story. We no longer trust the writer. We no longer feel the character is in control—we no longer believe the character, and therefore the story, is real.

By putting the character you first, you may end up needing to change the story. You may find the character wouldn't go right when you needed them to, so what happens next? Those who write as discovery would write more to find out. Those who have an outline, it's ok to change the outline as your character further develops. As the character becomes fuller, so do their decisions and so does the story.

This isn't just an argument for why every great story starts with character and how character shapes the story, it's also a guide on how to create, explore, and experiment with your character. 

Here are 12 exercises for creating character:

1. Conduct a character interview: Write down a list of questions to ask your character, and then answer them as if you were the character. This exercise will help you get into your character's mindset and understand their motivations, fears, and desires.

2. Create a character profile: Develop a detailed profile of your character, including their physical appearance, personality traits, hobbies, and background. This will help you flesh out your character and make them more believable.

3. Explore your character's backstory: Write a short story about an event in your character's past that has shaped who they are today. This exercise will help you understand your character's history and how it has influenced their present actions.

4. Use sensory details: Write a scene that includes your character interacting with their environment. Focus on using sensory details to describe how your character experiences their surroundings, such as the smells, sounds, and textures.

5. Practice dialogue: Write a conversation between your character and another character. Focus on making the dialogue sound natural and reflecting the character's unique voice and personality.

6. Develop character relationships: Write a scene that shows how your character interacts with someone they care about or someone they dislike. This exercise will help you understand your character's emotional connections and how they express themselves in different relationships.

7. Create a character arc: Write a story where your character goes through a significant change or transformation. This exercise will help you understand your character's growth and how their experiences shape their beliefs and actions.

8. Explore character motivation: Write a scene where your character is faced with a difficult decision. Focus on exploring the reasons behind your character's choices and what drives them.

9. Use character quirks: Write a scene where your character does something unusual or unexpected. Focus on using quirks or habits to make your character more memorable and distinct.

10. Write a character monologue: Have your character speak directly to the reader, sharing their thoughts, feelings, and opinions. This exercise will help you develop your character's voice and create a deeper connection between the reader and the character.

11. Give the character a desire: Consider your character's goals and aspirations; a longing that fuels your character. Is it something as simple as an ice cream cone or something as ambitious as overthrowing the tyrant king?

12. Put an obstacle in the character's path: What is a formidable barrier that your character must overcome? Consider the consequences of the obstacle for your character's journey by making the obstacle personal and relevant to your character's goals. It should highlight your character's strengths and weaknesses.

Know Why Character Matters

Now that you know the difference between a good character and a flat character, do you know the difference between a writer and everyone else? A writer writes. A writer practices by writing.

With that in mind,

pick 2 of the prompts,

take 10-20 minutes,

and call yourself a writer by writing. 

A nuanced, compelling exploration of isolation and grief. --Kirkus Reviews on Life Between Seconds