We’ve all read books that have characters that really stay with us. It’s exciting when that happens, and the mark of great writing. In this post, guest author Rita Kuehn talks about how to develop your lead character to make it memorable. Rita is the author of Peripheral View.
Developing your lead character is one of the first steps in writing fiction. You may already have an idea for your plot, but if you don’t have a well-defined protagonist, who is going to carry out your story? Who is tragic enough, quirky enough, lacking enough, or capable enough to define your work? A good place to start is with a likeable (if not loveable) character, to whom your readers can relate and for whom they’ll root. Main characters are without major flaws. They don’t lie, cheat, steal, or kill—leave those traits for the antagonist.
Creating a likeable lead with integrity is, however, not enough. Building an interesting, multi-dimensional character is also essential. To do that, you will need to know your lead’s history, her work life, her personal life and her private life. What are her distinctive physical qualities, her mannerisms, her strengths, her weaknesses, and her pet peeves? What is her seemingly insurmountable issue that she must overcome to grow or to solve your plot and what are her obstacles? These are just a few of the things that you’ll need to identify before you begin your story. A Character Development Worksheet can help with this, and I’ve crafted a simple one for this purpose.
Once you’ve identified your lead, you can develop the story’s other major characters in the same way. You will also determine how each one is connected to the lead: are they a confidante, an antagonist, an enabler, or something else? How do they either help the protagonist solve her problem or prevent her from achieving it? I use the worksheet to develop these characters as well.
Defining your lead doesn’t cast her in stone. While you should know a lot about her before you begin to write, she might surprise you. For example, in my novel Peripheral View, my protagonist Pearl Witherby has a wonderful sense of humor but it is her own and she wouldn’t use it to hurt anyone. So when she lays a seemingly powerful, well-placed, verbal zinger on her sister (and antagonist), Senator Susan Seymour, the reader will have to decide whether Pearl intended it to cut, or not. I’m still debating it. Sometimes your characters will take what you give them and work with it!
For a copy of a my Character Development Worksheet, you may e-mail Rita at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, The Writer’s Digest Sourcebook, The Writers Digest Sourcebook for Building Believable Characters by Marc McCutcheon is a good reference.