Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Birch House Press). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.
(This post is part of the Writing A Novel From Beginning to End series. You can find other posts from this series on the Looking For Something Specific? tab.)
Once I've written a chapter or two of my book and decided it's an idea I want to pursue, it's time for me to give some deeper thought to the people who will populate this world. Today we'll focus on the main character, and next week I'll talk about the supporting cast.
I believe there's nothing more important to a story than the characters. Perhaps that's my bias showing (my story ideas tend to come to me in the form of "This type of person is in a certain situation, and I need to get her out.") but I can't think of a story that I love—or even like—that doesn't have strong characters.
For example, there's never been a time where I've said, "I loved the book, but I didn't really like any of the characters." But there have been lots of times that I've said, "The concept was really good, but I didn't enjoy it because I didn't like any of the characters."
This doesn't necessarily mean your character has to be likable in the traditional sense. I've been watching Mad Men for a number of years, and I still can't decide what I really think about Don Draper. Readers often want to spend time with a character they like, yes, but I don't think it's enough to make your main character likable. I think it's much more important that they're interesting.
So when I'm thinking about my main character, the question I first ask is:
What is it that makes this character interesting? And how will I get that on the page?
But what about a story that doesn't have such a high concept plot?
In my favorite Sarah Dessen book, This Lullaby, Remy interested me because as a teen she was planning her mother's wedding, and because she had a bold way of talking. In Eleanor and Park, Eleanor interested me because she had a quiet strength that was evident from page one, and because it's clear her life is falling apart around her.
Sometimes characters are interesting simply because they say things in a way we wouldn't think to or they approach a situation differently than the average person might.
Another thing that can make characters interesting to us is to see them doing something very well. We love that in a character. The opening scene of Cars shows us Lightning McQueen racing in a very bold way his rookie season. Something about seeing a character excel appeals to readers and viewers.
Make it your own: Pull out the first scene of your book. What kind of situation do we first see your character in? What's interesting about the way they're behaving? What is it about them that you hope will draw in the reader?
What does this character lack?
If I'm going to drag my main character through a horrible ordeal, I'm of the opinion that they need to come out on the other end fulfilled in some way. Not without their scars, of course, but I want them to have a new purpose or deeper understanding or something of value.
The way to make sure you accomplish this, of course, is to make them lack something at the beginning of your story. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry lacks a sense of belonging. Katniss from The Hunger Games lacks freedom and hope of a good life. In Frozen, Anna and Elsa lack meaningful relationships. Jason Bourne in The Bourne Identity lacks knowledge—he has no clue who he is.
Make it your own: What does your character need that they won't have until they go through their journey? How do you show that in the opening?
How is this character wounded?
Harry Potter is an orphan. Katniss lost her father unexpectedly. Anna and Elsa are kept from each other; Anna doesn't know why, and though Elsa does, the knowledge only fills her with fear. Jason Bourne doesn't know yet how he's wounded, but he suspects that when he figures out who he is and what he's done, he's not going to like it.
These characters are all shaped by these wounds, and they impact the choices they make throughout the story. Many times, the climax of the story involves them overcoming doubts and insecurities that these wounds have left them with.
Make it your own: What wound does your character have, and how do you reveal it?
How is this character strong?
If Harry Potter had just moped about the Dursley's feeling sorry for his orphaned self, we would have closed the book at chapter two and never thought of him again. Even though it's effective to have a main character who's been wounded in some way, readers don't want a character who wallows, do they? Katniss is strong in how she provides for her family. Anna is strong in how she continues to love her sister deeply despite all the barriers between them. Bourne is strong in that he's relentless in his search for who he is, despite also fearing the answer.
Make it your own: How is your character strong, and how do you show that in the first chapter?
I'd love to hear about your main characters! Pick one (or more) of the questions above and answer in the comments below.