A story needs compelling and engaging characters that change throughout the narrative to keep readers/viewers engaged with the events unfolding before them.  No matter who the character is, it’s essential as a writer to have a strong sense of who they are and where they were before the events of the story you are creating.  Let’s look at a few ways you can do this in the pre-writing phase of your project.

Basic Stats

One of the easiest methods of getting to know your characters is to bullet-point the basics about them.  Name. Age.  Profession.  A few significant events that affected their lives before the story.  Personality traits.  Relationships with others.  Writing these down and having them as a reference can help ensure that characters have continuity throughout your story.

Obviously, you want your protagonist to have a strong arc that allows them to evolve over the course of the story.  But their past and present circumstances aid in dealing with the conflicts set before them and how they reconcile and move on as a character at the conclusion of the story.

I recommend doing this for the protagonist and antagonist and other key characters that are a main part of the story.

Character Biographies

A significant step-up from what I mentioned above is creating detailed and in-depth character bios for your protagonist, antagonist, and other key players in your story.  Create a 500-word essay about your characters, detailing their lives in an A&E Biography manner.  This gives you more creative latitude than the bullet-point method but is more time-consuming.  

This is ideal for historical fiction since you can do the research to find out more about the time period, social structure, environment, clothing, and other key factors that will make your historical novel more accurate.

Backstory Not Included

Should your Stats and Bios be used liberally in your novel or merely as reference material?  The lawyerly answer: It depends.  If what is happening in the story is directly affected by past events in the character’s life, I would definitely mention the relevant elements.  But don’t just do an info dump.  Weave relevant aspects of their past into the narrative or dialogue. 

The reader/viewer must feel that this character existed before the story they are now experiencing.  Your characters shouldn’t begin and end when the current story does.  They should feel like real, active people being observed during a particularly eventful and life-altering time in their lives.

How Did They Get Here?

Our past life experiences influence how we deal with the present.  The same is true for fictional characters.  Who was Tony Stark before he became Iron Man?  Who was Jack Torrance before the events at the Overlook Hotel in The Shining?  What was Starr Carter’s world like before the events in The Hate U Give?  

Dr. Phil has a useful tool that can aid you with these questions in both your own life and in the lives of your characters.  He breaks it down into what he calls The 10/7/5 Philosophy.  Even if you aren’t a fan of Dr. Phil, this method is an excellent tool for getting creating greater depth in your characters:

Ten Defining Moments: In every person’s life, there have been moments, both positive and negative, that have defined and redefined who you are. Those events entered your consciousness with such power that they changed the very core of who and what you thought you were. A part of you was changed by those events, and caused you to define yourself, to some degree by your experience of that event.

Seven Critical Choices: There are a surprisingly small number of choices that rise to the level of life-changing ones. Critical choices are those that have changed your life, positively or negatively, and are major factors in determining who and what you will become. They are the choices that have affected your life up to today and have set you on a path.

Five Pivotal People: These are the people who have left indelible impressions on your concept of self, and therefore, the life you live. They may be family members, friends or co-workers, and their influences can be either positive or negative. They are people who can determine whether you live consistently with your authentic self, or instead live a counterfeit life controlled by a fictional self that has crowded out who you really are. 

Source:  https://www.drphil.com/advice/defining-your-external-factors/

Your characters are the true lifeblood of your story.  They are the ones we care about, empathize with, and follow on their journey as they traverse the hills and valleys of the narrative unfolding before them.  It’s important to take the time to get to know your characters’ history, so you can better understand how they react to their present circumstances.  Then, you can use that information to evolve them into their future selves.

Happy writing, and I’ll see you next week!

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  1. Oh yeah, I’ve never really cared about character development and spent my early writing projects going solely on plot. But now I’m starting to see the point of having great characters. Anyway, thanks for these tips, Ian!

    1. It really depends on if you are telling a plot-driven story, or a character-driven one. Both need dimensional characters to keep audiences interested, but I’ve seen plenty of movies with solid plots and thin character development and vice-versa. It’s a challenge to find that balance, but with practice you can get there.

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