Every compelling story needs equally compelling characters, but sometimes it can be difficult to know where to begin. In his workshop “On Finding and Growing Ideas for Fiction” at the 2018 Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, author Shawn Smucker suggested creating a character as a springboard from which you can develop a plot. Even if you already have a plot in mind, his strategy may still prove useful if you complete it in the context of the fictional world in which you are writing. Smucker began by providing one image of a random person for each writer participating in the workshop. The writers then underwent six steps to turn that person into a fictional character that could be used for a story. Below are the steps given:
- Describe the physical appearance of the character. Go into detail. Are there any distinguishing marks or features? Imagine the character’s movement. Is there anything peculiar about the way he/she moves?
- Go deeper. Move into the personality of your character. What is his/her aura? What are their likes and dislikes?
- Ripple out. Think about the motivations and desires of your character. Answer the question of what your character wants more than anything.
- Setting. What are this character’s surroundings and how does he/she interact with it? What does your character’s location mean to him/her? (Smucker further suggests thinking of the setting as a character on its own.)
- Conflict. What causes conflict, internal and external, for your character? In what ways does this manifest itself in the story?
- Dialogue. Sketch out a brief conversation between your protagonist and another character. Get a feel for the way your character speaks—their sentence structure, word choice, etc.
Now you should have a rough sketch of your protagonist as well as some clues that will help you form a plot if you haven’t already. The issue, then, becomes developing your character into a believable and entertaining guide through the story for your readers. You need your reader to empathize with your protagonist and to empathize, your protagonist must be convincing as a real person. Part of this is making sure your character is morally complex. No one wants to read about a perfect person who does everything right all the time and never faces any difficulties (or if they do, those difficulties are completely undeserved). On the flip side, no one wants to read about a character that is pure evil and only ever acts from a place of pure hatred and maliciousness. The truth is, there are no such people in the world, and there should be no such people in the world you create for your readers.
In order to achieve the necessary complexity in your character, it is important to understand his/her motivations and desires. In Writing Irresistible Kidlit, Mary Kole extolls the importance of understanding character objective and core identity. What is your character’s deepest desire and what will he/she do to get it? What obstacles stand in the way of your character gaining their objective? Does your character desire anything they shouldn’t? Why does your character desire these things? What are your character’s strengths and weaknesses? His/her values and beliefs? Once you’re able to answer these questions, you should have a deep understanding of who your character is and a solid foundation to look back on as your character faces challenges in the plot.
For more information about character development, I highly recommend looking to Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole, which offers several helpful exercises and tips on the subject (that work for both kidlit writers and other authors).