The following post is part of a six week Writing Boot Camp series from Andrea Custer, creator of Tips For Teen Authors.
Meet Your Main Characters
Good characters are as complex as real people. They must have habits, traits, quirks, history. But they’re also more vibrant than real life. They say things you want to say, do things you wouldn’t dare do. They struggle in full view of the reader. And whether we’ll stick with them for 200+ pages is all about detail. Before you write, spend some time getting to know your main characters - your protagonist (the main character) and antagonist (the character who will present the most obstacles the protagonist must overcome). You will not include all of this detail in your writing - what gets included depends on what matters to the story - but you must know it, even if your readers never do.
Mr Potato Head
Start by brainstorming the kind of traits, interests, or qualities your main characters might have. To get ideas flowing you can use resources like story writing apps that give you character prompts, story ideas, and lists for writers. Tools like Story Cubes or story cards such as Storymatic are also great for generating ideas for possible traits. This is brainstorming time, so write down anything that comes up, and go where the ideas take you. You want a “yes, and” mindset to keep the ideas coming. It’s fine if you’re not sure at this point which character will turn out to be your protagonist or your antagonist - more on that below.
Inevitably during the brainstorming process you’ll start to have ideas about what your characters might look like, what they wear, and their physical habits - great! Think of it like a Mr. Potato Head toy - sketch out what your character might look like, just like you would add ears or a nose on Mr. Potato Head. Start with surface level things. You can find lists of questions you can ask about your characters online or in a story app, or go to TipsForTeenAuthors.com to download a free list of “Mr. Potato Head” questions you can ask about your characters. The idea is to go for basics: Is their hair long or short? Do they have any piercings? What style clothing do they wear? Is there a particular reason they wear it? As you start to ask yourself why the character has that haircut or wears those clothes you’ll naturally be drawn below the surface level. With each new detail you ascribe to them, the why is what will make your Mr. Potato Head . . . .
Come To Life
The next step is to add humanity to your characters. We do this by adding inner detail - the why that underlies everything, the reasons they’ve made the choices they have. This gets to the character’s insecurities, weaknesses, vulnerabilities, strengths, special skills, secrets, and experiences. Look for things that reflect a choice being made, and ask yourself why the character might be making those choices or have those preferences. It will start to reveal the things every good character must have: needs, wants, flaws, and strengths. Again, these more detailed questions can be found online, in writer apps, or you can download a list at TipsForTeenAuthors.com. These questions go a little deeper into who the character is. For example, what is your character’s most prized possession? What does their bedroom look like? What do they do when they think no one is watching? What sense do they most rely on? What would they do for the person/pet/thing they love most? What are they dissatisfied about? How do they deal with that? What makes them happy/sad/frustrated/eager? What do they wish were possible? These questions should start to allow you to access to the more profound layers you’ll need to know about your characters - their needs, wants, motivations, problems and flaws, all of which will be put to use later when you start to develop the plot. For now, be aware that your main characters must have an inner struggle (which will fuel their emotional journey) and an outer struggle (which will fuel the action of the plot). They also must have flaws and vulnerabilities - it’s how the reader will be able to relate to them.
Once you feel you’ve got a good idea of your main characters’ needs, wants, motivations, problems, flaws and strengths, try this exercise: Assume the persona of your character and pretend you’re being interviewed. Again, you can find character interview questions online, in story apps, or at TipsForTeenAuthors.com. Write out answers to those questions. Answer as you think your character would, and don’t let them off the hook too easily - explore hidden secrets, and get the character to reveal the things they don’t want to reveal. As you do, consider what the characters may be hiding even from themselves - these might end up being the big realizations they’ll make at critical points during the story. Notice any internal reactions to the questions, especially resistance to answering. Make notes of those so you can refer to them later. The goal is to learn what’s on your character’s mind, get a sense of who the character is now, and where there is room for them to grow and change during the course of the story.
Become The Casting Agent
Now it’s time to cast the first two roles in your story: the Protagonist and the Antagonist. Based on what you know about these characters you’ve been working with so far, who will be most changed by things that might happen? That’s the person whose story this will be. That is your protagonist.
To make the protagonist be the best they can be, they need a worthy opponent - this will be your antagonist. Your protagonist and antagonist should be opposites, but also connected in some meaningful way. The antagonist will thwart the protagonist not because of a mustache-twirling plan to take them down, but simply as a byproduct of pursing their own goals. Read more about developing worthy antagonists here.
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There’s always more to learn. These posts will just get you started. You can always email firstname.lastname@example.org to ask questions or take the discussion farther. You can also find the downloads mentioned in this post, as well as other free content, at TipsForTeenAuthors.com.
About The Author: Andrea Custer has been working with teens and tweens for the last several years - first as an Odyssey of the Mind coach, then teaching creative writing to middle graders and young adults at the local community center. She mainly writes YA in both the contemporary and historical fiction veins. Andrea divides her time between writing, exploring Los Angeles in search of odd happenings she can use in her novels, and getting lost in the aisles of her local bookstore. Find out more at andreacusterwrites.com, WriteTogether.Today, and TipsForTeenAuthors.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @ACwritesinMB, Instagram at andreamcuster or tips4teenauthors, and Facebook at Andrea Custer, Author.