Fundamental to any good novel is a good character, but what makes a character “good”? I’ve discussed characters in the past (archived posts on the topic are here). However, I don’t think I’ve thought so much about how a writer creates a character from scratch.
When I first started writing, I had a story in mind, and my characters were almost incidentals. Since then, I’ve learned how flat such a story is. Characters make readers care about the events that are about to happen, even as the events are the testing ground which allows characters to grow.
So which comes first? I believe that’s an immaterial question. A good story must have both a good plot and good characters—the non-flat kind.
To develop these characters, a writer needs to give each something he or she wants and something he or she needs. This latter may not be something the character is aware of consciously. In Jonathan Rogers’s excellent book The Charlatan’s Boy, young orphaned Grady doesn’t go around saying, I need to be loved and accepted, but the reader understands this about him fairly quickly.
The next part of developing a character is to put him on a path to gain what he wants. As the story moves forward, the initial want may change. If the character wants to reach point A, he may discover when he arrives, that now he wants to reach point B. Or, along the way to A he may realize that he only thought he wanted A, but now realizes he really needs B. Consequently, he abandons the quest for A and sets his sights anew for B.
A second important part of character development is to increase the character’s self-awareness. He needs to have strengths and weaknesses, and he should have an increasing understanding of how he needs to use his strengths and how he should work to change his weaknesses.
Third, the character should make progress, both in achieving what he wants and acquiring what he needs. The “want” is generally something outside him, and the need is that internal something that drives him. Yes, getting what he wants and needs can’t come too easily or there really is no story. But to make no progress defeats the character and the reader early on, dyeing the story in hopelessness.
Notice that all these first character development points have little to do with hair style or eye color. Often those are the things writers settle on as the most important when they start putting a character together. Is he tall? Does he like football? Is she a shopper?
Those things are secondary to the wants/needs understanding. If a character like Grady wants to be loved, then how does that affect his choices—his aspirations, but also the way he dresses and what he does with the hours in his day, the type of job he seeks.
Part of understanding these aspects of the character depends on the personality of this individual. Is he a “can do” sort, so he looks at obstacles as challenges, or is he burdened by his wants and needs, fighting to keep his head above water?
Notice that in either instance, the character is fighting. A passive character is not someone readers will connect with easily.
One more important element—a writer needs to think of his character as an individual. What are the quirks that he has that no one else has? Or the gestures, the speech patterns, the thinking style?
Know your character, inside and out. Then put him in any circumstance you wish, and you will know what he will do. Someone as spacey as your character would do something silly when the pressure’s on. Someone shy and retiring would never make such a spectacle of herself. But throughout the story, you test them and grow them and change them so that in the end they do more than even they thought possible. And you know exactly what they thought because you made them just that introspective.