Creating a Character — Part I

Plot without characters to give it life is merely a recitation of activity, and characters without plot to give them meaning go nowhere. The best way to learn about your characters is to throw them into the plot and see what they do, what they say, and what they think. In this bizarre merry-go-round called fiction writing, however, characters drive plot, which means that you need to know who your characters are before you can begin figuring out where they are going.

I have always had a general idea of who my main character was before I started writing a novel, but I have never created a history or a full-bodied character sketch for him or her beforehand. Although the writing experts say such a sketch is necessary, I never saw the point in generating material I would not use. But since I am getting nowhere with my latest writing venture, I thought I would try it. See where it leads.

I decided the hero is going to be a man. Originally I had planned on a woman, but as I said in an earlier post, the man has the stronger story and the more poignant choices to make, so he will make a better point-of-view character. For purposes of this sketch, I will call him Chip.

What I know so far about Chip’s history is that his mother is overbearing and interfering. Though she lives only an hour away, she came to visit and stayed for months. He hates himself for being a wimp and not kicking her out, but she is his mother, after all, and she has no one but him — his father ran out on them when Chip was in grade school. The story begins (and the world begins to end) the night Chip asks his mother to leave.

Chip is thirty-three, the owner of a pet store, and currently without a girlfriend. Perhaps he is leery of a relationship, not wanting to end up with someone like his mother. Other than that, I’m not sure I want to get into his background. Do we need to know where he went to school? What his childhood was like? What his failures and lost opportunities were? Do we care about his politics, his beliefs, his travels, his ex-girlfriends? Seems boring to me, and I can’t see that it makes any difference when the world is ending.

Most books on writing say that an interesting and enduring character must have a strong desire, a goal he will do anything to achieve, but do Chip’s present desires really matter when everything is about to change? To begin with, Chip’s only desire is to get his mother out of his apartment, though later he will want desperately to escape the human zoo where he has been incarcerated. Is that enough to propel the story? Or do I need to give him another desire, one that he has at the beginning and that follows him throughout his adventures, until at the end he gets either what he wants or what he deserves?

I’ll have to think about that and get back to you.

7 Responses to “Creating a Character — Part I”

  1. Suzanne Francis Says:

    Does he have to have a strong desire? For my own characters I think it is more important for them to change and grow as the story progresses. In other words, what they do is not as important as what they learn from it. Your guy doesn’t have to want to save the world at the beginning of the book. He can be an ordinary joe who is pissed off with his mother and his life in general. Then bad stuff happens to him. His reaction to the bad stuff, and what he does afterwards, is what would make the story interesting for me.

  2. Bertram Says:

    Good to know, because that is the story.
    Nice to hear from you. How is your latest book coming?

  3. Suzanne Francis Says:

    I am taking a break to give volume II one last quick look before sending it off to the publisher Wednesday, at the latest. But the new stuff isn’t going well, and I am struggling to figure out why. Maybe it is just psychological. I am hoping doing something else for awhile will get me over the hump.

  4. Bertram Says:

    Did the new stuff go wrong when you had to kill off one of your favorites?

  5. Suzanne Francis Says:

    Haven’t even got that far yet… Nothing I have written for this book seems to work right now. I will get stuck back into it though.

  6. Bertram Says:

    Maybe you took a wrong turn somewhere?

  7. Suzanne Francis Says:

    Possibly. I am waiting until life is less distracting to decide. Right now it is summer holidays here in NZ, and the kids are home from school for 6 weeks. So there isn’t a lot of quality time for writing. Maybe next month, when things settle down I will have some idea of what I need to do. Meanwhile I will just keep adding bits and pieces to the story and hope I get some stuff worth saving when the big shakeup comes.

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