Introducing and welcoming our first regular columnist: Rune Michaels,
award-winning author of GENESIS ALPHA and several other young adult novels.
Eleven Pillars of Character
by Rune Michaels
Character is plot. Plot is character.
I believe it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said this, although according to Google it has also been attributed to Henry James. Whoever said it, I have yet to meet a writer who disagrees.
Book ideas can start anywhere, from a basic idea, a ghost of a character, a plot twist or a theme that interests you. When thinking back on my four novels, two of them evolved from a plot idea and the other two from a character idea.
No matter where you start, sooner or later you will have to get to know your characters. Sometimes you get lucky, they just materialize in your head and you know all you need to know about them. Sometimes you have to create them, mold them, pressurize and push them into people -- and there's the big issue -- your character has to become a person, as believable and authentic as a person. Characters can't simply be pawns to serve your plot.
I have found that when brainstorming a story, or when stuck on a plot, the problem often lies within my character. Not always, but often. Perhaps I don't know her well enough. Perhaps I rushed into the story before taking the time to flesh her out. Perhaps she has a secret I have yet to discover. And perhaps I don't know yet that most important thing of all: her greatest desire.
Many people believe you need to know everything there is to know about your character. You need to know how much dust is under his bed and the name of his third grade teacher. They believe that if you place a box on a shelf in his room, you need to know what is in it, even if the box is never opened. Like the iceberg, 99% of the story is under the surface. A fun exercise for a writer's group is the Character Interview, where the writer pretends to be the character and the other members of the group fire questions at him, which he must answer quickly and spontaneously. We have an online version of this in the CC forums. Some writers use character templates and spend long hours writing up everything from shoe size to preferred operating system. CC has several such character outline templates among its tools, and templates to create your own.
But what do we HAVE to know? What is essential to know in order to create a good, believable character?
I believe in these eleven pillars listed below. You can use them whether you are creating a character from scratch or fleshing out the ghost of a character that has begun to take a shape in your head.
Keep in mind that when you first go through the list your answers should be short, one sentence at the most. When you have crafted a once sentence reply to each of these quick questions, you already have the shape of a person.
Let your replies rest for a day or two as your character evolves in your mind. Then come back to your answers, expand them and alter whatever you think doesn't look quite right.
The Eleven Pillars of Character:
Was her childhood happy, Unhappy or so-so? Was it memorable, or is it all a hazy past? Is she still attached to her childhood and the people she knew then? Does she still treasure some items from her childhood and keep them around?
Were they supportive, loving, distant, abusive, absent? Is she still in touch with them?
Her first love
I'm using "love" loosely. This can, but doesn't have to be, a romantic attachment -- depends on your character. It could be a favorite object that will never be forgotten. An unforgettable novel she read? A much-loved pet or a passion for cooking? Go for a deep positive emotion.
Is she social, asocial, anti-social? Does she have many friends, few or none at all? Is she close to her friends? Are there people who were once close friends but are now in the past for some reason? Does she gain friends easily? Does she lose them easily?
What does she do on the weekends? In the evening? Which TV programs does she watch? Does she follow local or international news? What is the last thing she does before going to sleep?
You don't need to know the details of what she does, but it is important to know whether she is doing what she loves, whether she just tolerates her job, or hates it. And what, if anything, she plans to do about it. For a child character, what is her attitude towards school?
Her biggest regret
What is her single biggest regret or disappointment? This can be anything from flunking a test from not saying proper goodbye to her dead grandmother. Is this nagging at her all the time? Does she push the thoughts away? Has some come to terms with it?
Her fondest memory
Find a memory that always makes her smile. Seeing the ocean for the first time? Her second marriage proposal?
Her biggest fear
These can be existential fears, true fears for her life or simple phobias. Does she have a fear of failure? Of being alone? Of being eaten by the mutant termites that haunt her village?
Her plan for the future
You control your character's future -- but what does she want to do? These two paths may diverge wildly...
Her biggest dreams and hopes
This may be the most important issue as it is the one most closely connected to your plot. What does your character want in life? What does she want right now? Why hasn't she gotten there already? Is she working on realizing her dream? What stands in her way?
What do you think? What are your essential pillars of character creation?