Several years ago, I taught classes in fiction-writing at a continuing education program for senior citizens. I’ve decided to turn my outlines and notes on these classes into several series about writing fiction.
Fiction writers usually describe themselves as being either character-driven or plot-driven. This is somewhat related to genre—romance novels tend to be more character-driven while action-adventure stories and thrillers are usually more plot-driven. However, characters and plot are both important in all fiction. Plot evolves from character—characters’ responses to situation and events creates the plot, and the actions in the plot must be consistent with the characters. Character-driven stories also have plots; plot-driven stories also have characters. Durant Imboden’s article Character vs. Plot explains more about the relationship between character and plot.
I’m a character-driven writer—I start with characters first then come up with what happens to them. What happens to them—the plot—evolves from the characters. So I’m going to start my fiction series with Creating Fictional Characters.
My friend Billie Houston, aka Barri Bryan, teaches a class on character development. She says:
In real life characters are revealed; in fiction characters are created.
In this series, we are going to talk about how to create characters. As the author, you theoretically have complete control over the characters you create. I say theoretically because many writers have had the experience I’ve had of characters taking over the story and leading the writer rather than vice-versa. However, characters can’t take over until they exist. And they don’t exist until the writer creates them.
So what is a character anyway? In Creating Characters: How to Build Story People, Dwight Swain calls characters story people. They are the people in your story, the people who live the plot.
Phonetically, character begins with care. Main characters must care about something that is important to them, whether it is significant or trivial.
Readers must care about the characters before they care what happens to them. Readers can love the characters, hate them, or be intrigued by them, but they can’t be bored by them.
The author must care about the characters in order to make the readers care.
A character is an artificial construction given individual and personal qualities by the author—a created personality with actions, attitudes, thoughts, and expressions.
Your fiction will have a main character (or characters) and secondary characters. Main characters must be three-dimensional and dynamic—they change through the story. Secondary characters, depending on their importance in the story and the length of the work, can be dynamic or static and one-dimensional.
Main characters are essential to your story:
- Protagonist—the person the story is about; the one who changes the most; the one who has the most to lose
- Antagonist—villain or opposition to the protagonist
- Other main characters—protagonist’s love interest, partner (Watson to Sherlock Holmes), family
Secondary characters are part of the story but not essential like the main characters:
- Sidekicks, friends, relatives, mentors, work associates
- Minor or background characters—unnamed props like a waitress in the diner
Readers don’t necessarily have to care about the waitress in the diner; they do have to care about the hero and heroine who are facing a crisis in their relationship over dinner.
Other valuable resources for character development:
- Building Fictional Characters: Charlotte Dillon
- Clare Dunkle’s ideas about creating characters
- Creating Unforgettable Characters
- Elements of Writing Fiction – Characters & Viewpoint (Elements of Fiction Writing)
- Fiction Factor: Character Creation
- Kaye Dacus Writing Series (links to series on writing, including several topics related to character development)
- The Writer’s Digest Sourcebook for Building Believable Characters
In the next installment, we’ll discuss how to find and create characters. Ask questions or share your thoughts about character development in comments.
photo credit: combustionchamber