Does Your Story Have Character?

Every story needs character. Sure, many stories are driven by plot, especially the kind I like to write but, it is how the character in the story reacts and grows that makes a story unique. Let's face it, there are only 20 master plots that every story ever written falls into according to the reasearch of Tobias and others. The list has been as low as three and as high as 36 but most agree on 20.

But, if you couple these master plots with an infinitesimal number character traits, along with an author's individual style, that's what gives every story a chance to be unique. So, even if you are writing a plot-driven story, the uniqueness or freshness of the story will depend on how your main character (and other characters) react to all the threats and heartache you put to them.

In order to be successful at this you must know your character. You must guide the development or arc of your character as the story progresses. My personal style of developing a story is with at least a minimal amount of outlining. I know many writer's who consider themselves "pantsters" and scoff at the thought of outlining because kills spontaneity.

While it is best to find some guide as a reference, one can certainly push forward with the concept of a character and let the character react to the things you throw at them throughout the story. Be warned though, that pantsing with the development of your character can lead to inconsistencies.

Jerry Jenkins produced an article on the 10 steps to creating and developing a fictional character. I've provided a link to the article here. I try to keep these steps in mind while I'm creating, and later, developing, a character. By way of example, I'll go through the 10 steps using a character I'm creating for a work in progress. This character needs to be strong, unique, and realistic as I have hopes of this story becoming a series. I've already got ideas for at least two additional stories besides the first.

Step 1:  Give the character a name.

My character's name is Katherine Mary Mckendry but everyone will call her Kat. I think that Kat McKendry has a nice memorable ring to it. What do you think of when you say the name? What is her nationality? can you make any assumptions based on her name as to her ancestral religion? I'm sure most of you can, and so the name gives insight into her background. Oddly enough, this name is actually a kind of conglomeration of relatives on my wife's side of the family. Except for the Katherine part. I used that name specifically so I could use the nickname, "Kat." And, by the way, to contradict her nickname, she has an unnatural fear, distrust, dislike, whatever, of cats.

Step 2:  Nail down the character's physical traits.

Kat is 5'3" with brownish red hair that turns to a ball of frizz when exposed to high humidity. More on this later as it pertains to the location of the story. She's always had pale clear skin but does not tan well. She slightly overweight but can handle herself physically. I mean, at 5'3" wouldn't anybody appear a little overweight? She has other minor physical traits that I will reveal through the course of her adventures. Even though it is good to know these things about your character, I feel it best to sometimes reveal these things through the eyes of another character. Do to the nature of the story: darkly comical, somewhat noir, sarcastic, it will be written in first person POV.

Step 3:  Give your character a backstory.

Kat was born in New York but spend the majority of her childhood all over the world. Kat's father was a military policeman, her mother a psychiatrist. Her father was stationed at a nearby military base in late nineties and then went to Iraq while the rest of the family remained in Dothan, Alabama.  fearing more overseas tours, her father left the service and began work a a policeman. He quickly moved up the ranks and became of the the best police investigators for the city in recent history. Kat has a brother, Caleb, with his own story and a sister (youngest child) Ann Marie or Annmarie. Their stories will have influence on Kat's story later.

Anyway, Kat never thought she liked living in a small town and attended college in New York after high school. While there, she met a photographer, dropped out of college when he convinced her she could be a model, and eventually found him (literally) in bed with one of his clients, which is why she's back in Dothan now. The story of their relationship is a subplot all by itself and is revealed throughout the first episode of this proposed series.

I have much, much more background on Kat and most of the other characters in play and don't want to bore you with volumes of life events but suffice it to say, a solid backstory is crucial if you want to develop a character over a series although I will probably never fully reveal everything.

Step 4:  Make your character human.

Kat has many flaws. She's short and somewhat chubby, nearly every day is a bad hair day, she drives like a maniac, she's naturally distrusting of strangers, she holds grudges, she's stubborn. But all of these faults or weaknesses could easily be turned into redeeming traits given the proper situation. Kat's kryptonite? her devotion to friends and family. She blindly believes and supports everything from her close friends and family without question. This gets her in trouble when her best friend from high school, Melinda Chase, is accused of murdering her own husband and Melinda begs Kat to help her.

Step 5:  Give your character hero qualities.

As mentioned in step four, most of the flaws of my character, Kat can be turned into redeeming qualities if the situation calls for it. One thing I want to add here is that many main characters these days are dark heroes or even anti-heroes. That's okay. the flaws and redeeming qualities don't necessarily have to be right for the righteous society, they just have to be right for the main character. Under a pen name I wrote a (very adult) story about a succubus demon. Her nature as it was, she needed to find men, seduce them, and literally take the life out of them during sex in order to continue her own survival. Yes, what she was doing was wrong but it is how she survived. Although morally incomprehensible to most, I tried to write her character without judgement. I rewarded her by finding her a love that she could not kill... but that's another story.

Step 6:  Delve into the inner life (the psychology) of your character.

This was the most difficult step for me for this story. As mentioned at the beginning of the article, this story will be plot-driven, in the style of those pulp fiction stories of the past.  This is my favorite style of writing and I've recently discovered that nearly all my writing is in pulp style, but that's another post altogether.

For Kat, her inner thoughts, fears, reactions, come from her background. Yes, she has an unnatural fear and hatred of cats. Somewhere, some time in her future, she'll have to deal with that. Also, with all the things I'm going to throw at her: being accused of murder, being forced to stick her neck out for her best friend accused of murder, a budding relationship with an old friend complicated by the fact that she's still technically married, being accused of tampering with/planting evidence... the list goes on. these are all things that will help her grow internally and become stronger for her next adventure.

Step 7:  Draw from your own experience for character development.

What kind of things have happened to you in your own life that caused you to grow. I'm sure that everyone can draw upon something here. I've got thousands of events or lessons from childhood to last week can be used for story fodder. I often write about some of those things on this blog. The great thing about using your own experiences is that it is like getting a do over from your own past. How often have you looked back on some event in your life and wished (knowing then what you know now) you would have done something different? This can be used to help your character grow with that benefit. You have the power to make your character's growth as easy or harsh as you want. Of course, oddly enough, readers prefer it when you put your characters through absolute hell before rewarding them with growth.

Step 8:  Keep the character arc in mind throughout.

This is where the outliner or "plotter" has a distinct advantage over the "pantster." By putting this all down on paper or in a file first off, you don't have to rely so much on what might be fuzzy memories to recall character traits for future growth. Here's where psychology comes in, your memories of original character traits will change or become distorted as you advance through writing your story. This is just my observation, but it come from my own experience. As your character grows within  your mind, you become very connected, nearly infatuated with the character. Some of those original character flaws and quirks will no longer be seen as such because, in your mind, your character has been growing all along. Problem is, as in my own case, you won't even know this until you get to the end of the story and realize none of this growth actually took place on the page. Your character's arc will just be a flat pathway with a few steps here or there.

Step 9:  Show don't tell.

I know what your thinking. Why is this mantra showing up in a post about creating and developing characters? I wondered this too when I was reading the article. This is a huge facet of story writing and volumes have been written explaining what this means and how to accomplish it. I think what it means here is to show character instead of merely explaining character. Let your character's personality come through in action and dialogue instead of narrative.

Step 10:  Research, research, RESEARCH.

I haven't even finished the first story in what I hope will be a series with Kat McKendry yet but I've had to research police procedures, look at maps of the local area, gain a basic understand of how a local bank works, you name it. Most of the personal character data came from personal experience but everything that supports what the main character must do and how she grows required research so that it would seem more authentic. I know of a few authors that purposely write within genres that they feel requires less of this research stuff. One might think that writing a fantasy or science fiction where you create your own worlds requires less research but that is never the case. In my story of a succubus demon I spent months researching mythology, ancient and current, to get a feel for how to create this character. After much more research I decided to give her the name "Azra." Why? because the name Azra in ancient times meant maiden or virgin. Yes, I wanted that irony in her name even though I doubt any of the three people that read that story new about it.

I imagine building and developing a character (or characters) for a story is something like sculpting a statue way back in history. The sculptors started with a chunk of clay or a hard stone and carved or chipped away until it became recognizable. They then had to continue this arduous work until they formed details that nearly brought the object to life. If you've ever had the chance to see some of these statues carved mostly in Europe, you'd be amazed at the complexity.

Even though it seems as if it is more work than necessary, a fully detailed character with the background to grow and develop as the story progresses could turn an average work into something readers can't get enough of.

What are your thoughts on character creation and development? Tell us in the comments about your own system, or something you would add to this process.

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