The Ultimate Guide to Building Characters - Part 1
Great stories need great characters. The people we choose to inhabit our fictional worlds help carry the story forward, but more importantly, they help to tell it. It is our main character’s story, and it is his or her situation that creates the entire fabric of the narrative. Our characters are the story.
That’s why thorough characterisation is essential. But characterisation isn’t just about how they look, what colour hair and eyes they have or what their favourite food is. It’s much deeper than that. It’s all the things that are not obvious – not at first. It’s all the many facets that make characters multifaceted.
Building characters – once you know what your characters are called and what they look like – requires a defined list of elements to not only bring them to life, but to help you tell their story.
The aim of characterisation is to bring to life the characters whose story is being told – they need to feel real; they need to be believable and they need to feel connected to us. The greater detail and depth to characterisation means the better the story will be.
Set the Goal
Start at the beginning. In other words, the main characters need a goal; a purpose and a reason to ignite the story. Both protagonist and antagonist will pursue their own specific goals, which generally conflict with each other. Those goals can be anything – saving a life, changing an outcome, making something right or changing the world etc. The pursuit of that main goal drives the momentum of the story; it affects actions, reactions, behaviours and it steers the story.
A goal (or two) provides structure to the narrative – something that moves from scene to scene and chapter by chapter. That’s because the main character needs to achieve that goal, no matter what, but he or she will come into conflict with the antagonist and will be thwarted countless times, often facing danger, terrible dilemmas and events beyond their control. Goals may even develop into something else as the story unfolds, or they might split into several minor goals, depending on the story, until, eventually, the protagonist reaches that objective.
Stories usually have one overarching main goal that forms the structure of the entire story; however, you can add a character’s inner, personal goals, too. This not only adds extra detail to the character, but to the story.
External goal –The main goal that forms the crux of the story.
Inner goal – An inner or personal objective might form the basis of a subplot. It could be the protagonists aim of getting the girl (or boy), or finding themselves and their truth worth. Perhaps they have a desire to change. But whatever it is, it’s deeply personal to them, and it’s something they want to achieve before the conclusion of the story.
It’s not just about the main characters either. Every story relies on its secondary characters to help tell the story, too, and they also have their own personal goals. Don’t neglect them. Their goals often form the structure of sub plots.
Whether it’s your main character, antagonist or secondary characters, ensure sure their goals are:
- Justifiable to the story.
- Logical (i.e. they make sense to the reader).
- Relate to the plot.
Building characters is all about details. The more details you give and the more time you invest in them, the more true to life they will become. Your fictional world needs detail.
Giving your characters motivation is way of laying the foundation for your story. Motivation is about what your character wants to achieve, (and what their ultimate goal is), why the character wants to achieve this and what the consequences be if they do.
Everyone is motivated by something. Every character goal is driven by motivation. Even our reactions are motivated by actions (cause and effect). But deep characterisation relies on your main character being motivated by something – maybe a need to find the truth or to find someone before it’s too late. Perhaps he or she is motivated by love, greed or revenge. Or perhaps it’s a deep desire to succeed.
Whatever that motivation, that need; it pushes them forward, no matter what is thrown at them or who stands in their way. Both protagonist and antagonist need motivation, which is usually in direct conflict with each other. This provides the story with an underlining depth, because without character motivation, they won’t have their eye on that goal, and there won’t be much of a story to tell.
By giving your character motivation, you are providing the reader with the reason they’re in the story, and why the characters do and behave the way they do. If characters have no believable reasons for their actions, readers won’t engage with the story, or the characters. Motivation provides purpose to character action.
They need a reason to be in the story.
Don’t overlook the following when it comes to character motivation:
- Basic need – the reason to begin their journey, the need to do something, find something, achieve something.
- Past incidents and events – these shape your characters, how they act and react, their behaviour and traits.
- The present – things in the present can affect a character just as past events can, and can often jump start their actions.
- The antagonist – the lynchpin that creates much of the conflict required for the story.
All these aspects provide motivation, emotion and, ultimately, conflict. This is why motivation plays such an important role in fiction. Writers may not realise this, but every important character in your story has motivation, they all have their reasons to be part of the story, therefore they all drive the story forward.
We all have a backstory, a history. So do your characters. Our backstories tell people who we are, where we’re from, who our parents are, what we do in life, our hopes, dreams and fears, and who we share that life with. We’ve all experienced good things and bad. Our childhood and environment shapes us as adults, and how we behave.
Character backstories are like the colourful brushstrokes on a painting. They’re in the background, but it’s the detail that draws our eye. It’s the small details that can make the reading experience so immersive, so if you are going to paint a fictional picture, don’t leave out the detail.
Backstory is just as important as the present story.
More to come next week in part 2 of the Ultimate Guide to Building Characters.