A Quick Little Guide to Developing Characters: The Main Character(s)
Main characters are the focal point of your story. We see the world through their eyes, or experience the world with them, or follow them on their quests. Regardless of what point of view your story is in, the main characters are the driving force that takes us through the plot.
The most crucial question an author must ask while planning a story is: Whose story is this? That character- whoever or whatever they may be- is your main character. There may be other important characters, there may be others involved and influencing the plot, there may even be two people that the story belongs to- but knowing who the main character is, is essential to story development. This can affect PoV, story structure, character development, and so much more.
Most novels center around one main character, a handful of close side characters, and a larger group of background characters. This structure is not necessary for story development (you can have a story with multiple main characters with multiple POVs, for example) but it is a very good place to start. Still, building a dynamic and realistic character takes time and effort.
Readers should love your main character- or, if they aren’t supposed to like your main character, they should at least be invested enough to want to watch that character grow. In order for that to happen, you have to know your character. Here are a few things that you should keep in mind while creating the main character:
- Avoid the “blank slate”
- You know the character I’m talking about. The one with no personality, no drive, and no substance. These are your characters that start flat, stay flat, and end flat. Your main character should have at least one of those three things. Maybe the character is shy and reserved, so they come off as having no personality or substance, but in reality, they have this intense drive to defeat the villain, or win the school science fair, or whatever it is that makes the story a story. Or, perhaps the character has tons of personality and depth, but no drive.
- But to have a character with absolutely nothing at all is practically a death sentence. Of course, those stories still get published and still get a following- but that is largely due to having a background cast of characters with substance, personality, and drive for the fans to latch on to. Main characters should be open enough to allow for many people to relate to them, but that doesn’t mean they need to be a blob of nothing. Let them have a goal, a fear, a hobby- anything that brings your main character to life and makes them unique.
- Give your main character flaws
- You’ve probably heard the term “Mary Sue” before. Basically, these are your characters that can do no wrong, are great at everything, and are absolutely stunningly beautiful in every way. (hint: having a rough backstory does not make up for the Mary Sue.) People aren’t perfect- and your character shouldn’t be either. Maybe they don’t get art right away. Maybe they aren’t such a great athlete. Maybe they don’t get the best grades. Maybe their skin isn’t perfect. Flaws make people beautiful- and they make characters beautiful too. Sometimes, a person will relate more to a character because they have similar flaws than because they both like sports.
- Let your character be their own person
- Now, I know that these characters are not real. They exist only in fiction. But I, personally, am not a huge proponent of the “your character is something you control and can’t make decisions like a real person” kind of mentality. Yes, technically, we do control our characters, especially the fictional ones we make up- but it feels restrictive. I like to think of myself as the vessel that tells the stories for my characters. This helps me humanize them a little more, and this makes them real to me. If your character feels real to you, they will feel real to the reader. If they are forced, restricted, or held back- they will feel that way to the reader. It’s all about perception. Your plot can absolutely take a completely different turn because of something your character does that you didn’t plan for- because as you write your character, you learn about them. They grow and change and something you thought might happen before turns out to not work. And that’s ok. Forcing your character into a plot that doesn’t fit who they are, or what choices they are most likely to make in the first place is detrimental to the story.
- You are NOT your character
- Self-inserting is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, many others start the character development process by taking a trait from themselves or someone they know and building on that trait. However, fully aligning yourself with a character can be a bad thing for a story. It can be harder to be critiqued- especially on personality because you feel as though you yourself are being critiqued. It can be harder to fall victim to the Mary Sue as it is sometimes hard to show our own flaws. Identifying with a character and feeling as though a character is an extension of yourself is perfectly ok, but separation from yourself as the author and the main character is a healthy step for fiction authors to take (especially before critique).
- Character profiles will save your life
- Character profiles make character development so much easier. It comes in especially handy when laying out a character before writing because it gives a skeleton structure to follow as a guideline moving forward. Even if it’s something as simple as name, age, D.O.B., strength, weakness, physical attributes… it’s still a huge help to have just a few words about your character jotted down somewhere before you begin.
- Drabbles! Drabbles! Drabbles!
- For those unfamiliar with the turn drabbles, these are basically 100-word pieces that are just a scene or situation. They are short and fun- and they are a great technique for character building. Take a character, put them in a scene, and see how they react! What if they met aliens? What if it was their birthday, but no one showed up? What if they found a book that detailed their entire life- including the future? Drabbles, story prompts, and short little character skits are all great for figuring out how a character would realistically react to multiple different situations.
- DO NOT Forget about your side characters!
- Most of the time, the main character is not the only character. They have friends, family, partners, and just random other characters that are around them every day. All these characters matter too- and how your character interacts with those characters is critical in showing who your main character is as a person. Flat side characters are just as boring as flat main characters.
- Know how your character is going to develop before starting
- One of the driving components of a story is that it changes or influences the character in some way. Otherwise, why would it be an important moment? Why would the story need to be told? Know what your character learns from this experience before you start to write it- even if it’s just that one of the MC’s previous thoughts or ideas is further solidified. This character arc does not need to be completely defined in your brain before starting, but it should at least have an endpoint.
I hope these tips were helpful to all y’all! If you have any questions or want me to elaborate on a specific part of this guide, leave a comment. If you have a suggestion or something you want to see me write on for another Tips & Tricks blog, let me know and I’ll see if I can get to it. For more tips on how to build a dynamic story, look for the other Tips & Tricks guides for world and plot building. And stay tuned for Part Two C: Side Characters!
Until Next time!