by Kayla I Shown-Dean, Miss December 2015
Often, when people find out that I’m a self-published author they ask me, “How do you do that? How do you write a book?” At times, it’s easy just to laugh them off and say something like, “I just love to hear myself talk, so I just decided to put all my thoughts on paper.” In reality, however, writing novels, short stories, even poetry takes a lot of work. But today, I’m going to let you guys in on a secret to getting started: always start with your characters.
Plot is important, but it is characters that drive a story. You can have a wonderfully written, well-developed plot, but if you don’t have well-rounded, likable and relatable characters, you won’t attract many readers. Therefore, I like to think of each story as a social experiment. I ask the question: how would a person with this character’s qualities react if placed in a situation like this? If you keep this question in mind as you work on your book, you work toward authenticating your characters. This is a theory of literary criticism called Psychoanalytic theory, but that’s a discussion for another day.
So when you start writing, whether or not you have a story (plot) in mind, you should always start with your characters. I usually make a character chart similar to this one on my blog. I start with the character’s gender and age. Then, I start adding personality traits: Is this person patient? Anxious? Do they have a temper? Are they artistic? Creative? Athletic? Do they have any certain religious beliefs? Do they live by some sort of moral code? This usually gives me a pretty good idea of how my character perceives the world around them.
You can also use a Dungeons and Dragons Character Building Chart to help with this, which makes things really interesting! Check out my blog post, D&D’s Contributions to my Literary World for more information.
If you’ve done all of this and you still can’t get a good understanding of your character, try comparing them to someone you know personally or even someone famous. However, I must warn you to be careful with this. In doing this, you often take the risk of writing someone you know into your story. If you want to do this, then go for it. (Just be careful of copyright issues when dealing with celebrities and other characters.) But if you’re like me and want your character to stand on his or her own, then be sure to consciously limit yourself to only borrowing a few qualities of said person in order to better portray your character. In other words, don’t copy and paste someone into your story (unless that is your intention—which would probably only work in a memoir).
After I’ve developed my character’s persona, then, and this is the most important thing, I ask the two BOOM questions.
1.) What does my character want?
I didn’t include this on my blog post (because I didn’t want to give anything away), so let me demonstrate with another character from my book one in my series, Ferocity.
Judson is the bulky, hulky, short-tempered brother of Abel in The Ferocity Series, and what Judson wants more than anything is to NOT leave his family’s island home.
BOOM! Just like that I’ve created my character’s motivation!
Now, follow that question up with the second BOOM question: what is stopping Judson from getting what he wants?
In short, his father wants to leave the island. At this point in their story, Father sees leaving as his only option to protect his children since the island’s food shortage. In addition, his brother Abel is considering leaving the island as well.
BOOM! Now, I’ve created conflict (which propels your plot) and tension between Judson and two other characters.
Now for the rest of my book, I know what’s going to motivate my character in everything he does. In addition, I know who and what is going to oppose him, and since I’ve already developed his personality, I know how he will react to said conflict.
Easy-peasy, right? And that, my friends, is the magic of motivation. By discovering what motivates my character, I can dive right into my plot.
You guessed it: I want you all to create a character sketch. You can use pictures of friends, celebrities, animals, etc. to create a mood board for this assignment if you’d like. But still, you need to select a name, age, and gender for your character; develop that character’s personality; and finally, ask the two “BOOM questions”. Also, if you’d like you can check out my blog posts under the category My Work for some examples. I look forward to meeting some awesome characters in the comment section!