Monday, February 12, 2018

The 3 Questions You Need to Answer About Your Main Character Before You Start Your Novel



Stephanie Morrill is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.


I've always wanted there to beand have often attempted to createa step-by-step process for writing a novel. And while there are some things that happen in a clear, orderly fashion, many other pieces feel a bit like the chicken and the egg. 

My character forms my plot, but also my plot forms my character.

So even though I've chosen to talk first about my plot and my research, it's not like I cross those off a list before I get going on my characters. The creation process is all very entwined for me, so when I'm working on my blurb or research, I'm also thinking about and working on my characters.



For me, it isn't until I've written my first draft that I feel like I really know my characters. Before the first draft, it's like when there's a person in your life who you've talked to a time or two, but you've never had a shared experience. Yeah, you know them ... but after you go on that mission trip/play that season of volleyball/survive being lab partners, then you know them.

I've tried character interviews, figuring out their Meyer Briggs personality type, archetypes, but none of that has ever served me real well. If you feel like those tools are helpful to you, then stick with it.

The first thing I do, and that you probably do too whether you think about it or not, is mine the story idea for intrinsic character information.

For Within These Lines, there were a few things about my characters that were obvious from the concept of the story. One being that both my main characters, Evalina and Taichi, were the type of people who could be persuaded to break social customs. Since interracial marriage was illegal in California in 1942, obviously dating someone of a different race wouldn't be very popular either. But they haven't told their parents, so they're not rebelling for the sake of making a splash. To me, that suggested that they loved and valued their parents and their opinions.

So just what little I knew about the story has already informed the characters. Before I begin writing or creating a synopsis in earnest, however, I do have three questions that I answer for all point of view characters. I didn't come up with these on my own, I should say. These are craft questions that are so widely taught, I wouldn't even know who to give credit to.



What does my character want? 

What are they trying to accomplish during the story? If the goal isn't strong enough, your reader is going to think, "Why don't they just not do this?"

If the authors hadn't done their job in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pride and Prejudice, or the movie Tangled, you would think, "Why should Harry Potter look for horcruxes, or Lizzy Bennett wait for true love, or Rapunzel risk leaving her tower?" But you don't because from the beginning of these stories, you know what the main character's goal is, and why.

Because my two main characters, Evalina and Taichi, want a happily ever after with each other, I knew in those early chapters my job was to show the reader how good they are when they're together, and how unfair it is for them to be kept apart.

What lie do they believe, and why do they believe it?

Before the opening of my stories (and most modern stories), my character believes something untrue about his or herself, or the world around them.

The lie is one of the hardest things for me to identify before I write the story, and it sometimes morphs a bit for me as I write the first draft. (Which is frustrating because that inevitably means more work in rewrites.)

When you're trying to identify the lie, you want something that feeds into the overall message of your story ... which means you need to have an idea of what you're trying to say with the whole thing. For Within These Lines, I knew I had a lot of anger over the way the Japanese Americans were treated, a lot of admiration for how submissive and gracious they were through the whole ordeal, and a ton of frustration with how few people advocated for them outside the fences. I didn't really know what my theme would be yet, but I knew those were all topics I wanted to touch on.

Taichi's lie came to me much easier than Evalina's. Taichi's lie is, "If I just do what I'm told, everything will be fine." I knew that lie would feed Taichi's decisions about how to handle cruel treatment from guards and poor living conditions.

Evalina's lie started out as something different, but eventually became, "I'm just a teenage girl." Evalina would lean on her low place in society as an excuse to not speak louder, to not be angrier, to not be more active. She's just one person. What's she supposed to do?

Your characters also need a reason to believe what they believe. Sometimes this is called "an origin scene." For Taichi, I decided he has an older sister who has been very rebellious and gotten into a lot of trouble. From watching her, he learned how to stay out of trouble by obeying. With Evalina, it was a bit murkier to come up with a defining moment of when the lie took hold. I think anyone who has gone through childhood understands that most of the time you feel like a second class citizen who will only really matter once you're an adult.

The best lies for your characters will have truth in them as well. Take Taichi's lie as an example. It's true that if you obey the authorities in your life, things tend to go your way. But what about when the authorities are morally wrong? Or it's true that Evalina is a teenage girl and doesn't have much (or any) clout to her name. But that's not a good enough reason to stay quiet in the face of injustice.

What truth do they need that they'll discover over the course of the story?

Your main character believes they are working toward something specific (and they are) but they also need to be moving steadily toward learning the truth that will defeat their lie. 

Evalina, I knew, would have to learn how to be bold and use her own voice even in the face of oppression from someone who "ranked higher" in society. Taichi would need to learn that there's a time and place to question authority.

Once I've answered these three questionswhich sometimes happens easily and other times takes trying and trying again to land on the best optionit's amazing how much of the plot starts to take shape in my mind. More on that next week!

Do you do very much to get to know your character before starting your first draft? What tools work for you? What have you tried that hasn't worked?

26 comments:

  1. I think about the story (let it "ferment" in my brain) but I actually figure out most of these things as I write, I think. I really like the question, "What lie does my character believe?" I feel like that's a great question, one that can add a lot to the story. Lies and truths are what make fiction strong, I believe :D I love reading about your characters! This book looks like it will be a fun read!

    keturahskorner.blogspot.com

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    1. Thanks, Keturah! I feel like figuring out the character's lie (also sometimes called the wound or the ghost) has been huge for me.

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  2. Hmm, I haven't really thought about the question, "What lie does my character believe?", in those exact words, but I've used the concept.

    A tool that's worked incredibly well for me is the Myers-Briggs personality types. I had fun studying them, typing all sorts of characters, and I finally found the right idea and right cast of characters.

    Really though, most of my learning has to come from the drafting process. I've tried getting more extensive beforehand, but none of that ends up being relevant, and I only ever get stuck.

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    1. I've had the same thing happened. You really can't beat the first draft for a character creating tool. I know lots of writers really like the Myers-Briggs research for character development!

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  3. Lies are HARD to identify!!! Since most of my protagonists are trying to be free in one way or another, it's hard because I don't want all of them to be the same personalities, but I see a common goal with most of them. The lie is a big part of what makes them different. Like, if one character believes that if he can't save everybody then he's a failure (so what do I do? I take away the two people he loves best). It's just hard not to repeat characters.
    Fun post!!!
    astoryspinner.blogspot.com

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    1. Yes, that's a great point, Erica. Same as developing diverse backstories for characters, having different lies really creates different paths for the characters, even if their goals are similar.

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    2. One thing I've seen suggested is to give them the same goals with different motivations, or different reasons. Say you have an epic fantasy quest going on. One person goes into the quest wanting to save everyone because he believes he's worthless if he can't. Another person might go into the quest because it'll help his kingdom, but he couldn't care less about the other countries it'll help. A third just wants to finish it quickly and get back to their simple, peaceful life. This also creates conflict among your group of protagonists, because even though they're trying to achieve the same thing, they're doing it for different reasons and thus, probably, with different methods.

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  4. Yes, I need to know my characters before I start the first draft. Last year, I discovered that my previous attempts at writing a story all failed because I tried to discover the story while writing it. That's not me, I am a plotter, or outliner as K. M. Weiland calls it. And it works so well now!
    So at this moment, I know my protagonist's character arc (a positive arc, the Lie she believes, her Wound, the Truth she needs to learn), her background,family, friends, what she looks like, her MBTI, love language etc etc etc. She's like a friend, someone I know very well. Same for the other main character and the two antagonists.
    Right now I am enjoying writing down everything I know about them.

    What helped me to discover them: character interview. I think you wrote about it before, Stephanie. Basically I asked my character a question like: how is your relationship with your mother and they talked for pages. Very interesting (suddenly I understood my antagonist, where he was coming from and why he was like he was).

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    1. Yes, Marja! Character journals is what I've always called them, but I love those! I don't often do them before my first draft, but it's good that you've found what works best for you!

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  5. I've tried the character quiz things before, and most of the time I don't really like them. I find that if I overdo it trying to get to know my characters before writing, I get bored and don't want to continue.

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    1. Same here. In the past, I often got overly ambitious trying to get to know ALL THE THINGS about ALL MY CHARACTERS, and it always led to me burning out.

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  6. This is SO helpful, thank you so much! I'm struggling with understanding my characters right now (first draft problems, ew) so this is amazing and what I really needed. Thank you!

    -Gray Marie | graymariewrites.blogspot.com

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    1. I love hearing that, Gray! I'm glad this came at the right time :)

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  7. While I'm writing my first draft I kind of learn more about my character. I'm writing my second book right now (I wrote my first book I just have to read it over one last time and published it.) and this post really helped me. Thank you for posting this!

    Lily @ lilymaesday.blogspot.com

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  8. I haven't done this before, but I really have to start. Once I finish the first draft of my novel, I'll have to go back and add these in. It'll be hard to figure out what lies can relate to the plot, but maybe they don't have to too much- maybe the plot can just somehow show them that the lies are wrong, or something. I don't know if that makes sense. My characters are slowly losing what it is that makes them special, but I think once I figure this out I can fix it.

    ~Mila

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    1. Mila, when you say "my characters are slowly losing what it is that makes them special" do you mean that's happened intentionally or unintentionally?

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    2. Unintentionally- when I went back and read the first few chapters I was surprised at how different from each other they sounded.

      ~Mila

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  9. I struggle with this kind of character development. I feel like I know and understand my characters very well because I spend so much time with them and they, you know, LIVE IN MY HEAD. But ask me to answer seemingly simple questions like these and I'll probably get stumped. It's no easy task to put labels on the human condition or to describe it in a few short sentences!

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    1. That's totally fine! My friend, Roseanna White, is the exact same way. She really struggles to identify any of these labels for her characters or stories, but they're all there. You just think about story in a different way, and that's just fine!

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  10. At first, I thought I would have no clue what to do with these questions, but they came to me easily. What does my character want? She wants to protect everyone she possibly can, even if she knows she'll never save everyone. Her lie is the belief that she can't make a difference, not enough to really change anything. By the end of my first story, she's learned how much of an effect she can have, but her lie actually transitions into something else by the end of the story, something that stays with her for a long time: If she wants to help people, she has to give up on having her own life outside of that. She's dedicated, which is a great thing, but she's so wholeheartedly focused on helping others that she can't live her own life.

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    1. I love it, Christine! Sounds like a character who readers will enjoy following for many, many stories!

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  11. This post is very timely. I'm working through the first revision of a NaNoWriMo story, and I quickly realized that my characters really needed more depth. But it's been a struggle digging into some of them to figure out how they think and why they do what they do. These three questions help so much. Thanks!

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    1. I'm so glad, David! For me, these have been the key to creating believable character motivations, and I hope they help you too!

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  12. These are some really good points!

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