When I was a student at CAL, I lived in a boarding house, actually an old Maybeck-designed house. I knew that this historic house, as well as its inhabitants, would be central to the story I was going to write. My characters had the seeds of these girls in them but were definitely not these girls. If you’ve already written your novel, you’ll know what I’m talking about when I say that characters have a way of taking off on their own, even as you create them. To me, one of the most exciting things about writing is seeing how your characters turn out. They will definitely end up being different from the way you initially envisioned them. So, even though I started out writing about my housemates, they themselves never actually appeared on the page.
Here’s another interesting thing about my characters – I met my husband at CAL, yet he doesn’t end up in the novel. at all. I can’t tell you why, but that’s part of the mystery of writing – the novel will be shaped by the needs of the story as it progresses. The trick is that you be tuned in to these needs.
So, once you’ve settled on the story that you want to tell, decide who will be in your story. Who is your main character, or Protagonist, and what are is his relationship to the other characters? As I said, much of this will change, but you have to have a starting point. Before I begin a novel, I write little biographies of the characters – where they came from, how they look, their personalities, and how they feel about each other. It’s also important to understand what these characters want out of life. This is a tall order, I know, but if you don’t understand your characters and their motives in the beginning, the novel will get away from you and you’ll end up doing a lot more re-writing than you need to.
I had always been taught that people have to like your main character in order to like your book, and most main characters are likable. However, I recently read a quote by a novelist who said that we connect to characters if we understand how they feel and what they want. We don’t necessarily have to like them. Think of the Seinfeld characters, for instance. Not one of them is likable. They’re all self-centered and small-minded. But we loved them, anyway. Why? Because we always knew what they wanted and how they felt. So, make sure you know what your characters want and how they feel. Their feelings can change throughout the story, but you must know what those feelings are at all times.
The main character is the hero of your story (You knew that, right?) What she wants is the problem of the story. And how she get it is the plot. In The Wizard of Oz, what Dorothy wanted was to get home to Kansas. How she accomplished this is what makes up the story. So, once you’ve figured out what your main character wants, you’ve established the problem of your story. Now, what are the steps she takes to reach her goal, and what are the obstacles that keep her from getting there? That’s the plot. More about that later, but, in this post, we’re talking about characters.
Your main character’s biggest problem will be another character called The Antagonist. This is the bad guy who foils her every effort to get ahead, and he must be a formidable foe! Who is your antagonist? Why is he so keen on making your heroine fail? Getting back to Seinfeld, for a minute, George is often his own worst enemy, thwarting his own success over and over again, as he tries to convince everyone around him that he is other than his real self. Remember him wearing a hairpiece to hide the fact that he was bald? Wearing hiking boots, even on a date, in order to appear taller than he was? Denying the fact that he’d bought a sweater with a hole in it for Elaine in order to save money? Of course, George’s ruses are always revealed. What I’m getting at with this big sidebar is to say that your main character can also be the Antagonist, her own worst enemy. In my book about Berkeley in the 60’s, the main character’s goal is to find her rightful place in the world. And, in pursuing that goal, she thwarts herself at every turn — going with the wrong guy, doing drugs with a friend who is an addict, picking fights with her step-mother — to name a few. Granted, James Bond’s Antagonists, being characters other than himself, are easier to create than a conflicted hero, but we all have internal struggles, and that might be the kind of story you want to tell.