Last time I talked about how to move from a plot idea to a full story idea. We learned about ideas, plots, and story questions. But as I said in that post, there are many ways to begin a story. One of the other most common ways writers begin stories is with a character. So today, I’m going to give the basic steps of taking a character and creating a story around them.
Again, there are a few aspects to this–four, to be precise–and you can start from any one of them.
First, we have an image. That is, a picture in the writer’s head of what the character looks like. Images can be a lot of fun, but to turn a character image into a story probably requires the most work. Common inspirations for character images include dreams, chance sightings in public, and sometimes a certain aesthetic, such as Steampunk, Victorian, or Vampiric.
Character images are very similar to character designs in games and anime/manga—that is, the visual aspect of the character. While this is less important or visible in writing than character designs in visual media, it still needs to be known by the author, in order to allow for description and scene-setting.
Now, why might this aspect be the hardest to start with? Because stories are about characters—and more specifically, their personalities and goals. While a character image might reflect that, it’s not the root of the issue. But character images are only part of what you would find in a character profile such as many writers use to describe the character.
The second part of that profile is usually the character personality. Their dominant traits, such as neurotic or fiery; their likes and dislikes, such as favorite food or favorite color; and of course the way they interact with other people: Are they bright and boisterous, dirty-minded and sly, or perhaps aloof and brooding? This aspect is easier to build from, but still not the easiest. While it is important as far as cast interaction and sympathy go, it doesn’t have the most influence on the plot.
Our third aspect of a character is made up of goals, dreams, and motivations. This is where good stories arrive at their themes and basic plots. Most plots either involve pursuing the characters dreams, or frustrating them. Myself, I prefer a certain amount of frustration, since that’s where most tension and conflict in the story is derived. It’s hard to write a good story with interesting characters when this aspect is lacking. It’s also one of the primary issues that pansters seem to encounter in their first drafts.
In fact, this aspect is where most stories are lacking in terms of character. If you’ve ever heard the term “card-board character”, this is what it’s talking about. You might have the character image down-pat, but if there’s nothing behind it for a reader to relate to, the reader can’t root for the character, because there’s nothing to about them that’s interesting.
Personality plays a role as well, but if this aspect is not addressed, all the snark and wit in the world isn’t going to drive the story forward. “Passive character” is most often the term for a hero who’s got both image and personality, but is an empty vessel as far as trying to achieve their own goals. While you might be able to get away with a passive character in some types of stories, it’s still a risk that you shouldn’t take lightly.
And now we just have one more aspect of character to discuss: skills, abilities, and attributes. Anyone who’s familiar with RPGs knows how important this is, although since there’re only NPCs in fiction, it doesn’t have quite the prominence they’re used to. This category deals with skills such as self-defense, manipulation of the environment and others, and normal physical attributes such as speed or strength.
Now, you’ll notice I’ve divided this into three categories. I’ve used ones derived from common RPG mechanics, since they fit so well. Naturally, these categories are going to be a bit vaguer in fiction. A “skill” is facility in a certain area, such as computer programming, writing*wink*, or swordsmanship (to keep fantasy from feeling left out). It’s generally something learned through studying, training, or practice. “Ability” refers more to a specific power, and is often inherent, such as being genetic. An attribute is the most passive category. It refers to a general facility, such as intelligence, physical stamina, or charisma.
I think we could benefit from some examples, here. Since I love talking about magic so much, we’ll focus on that—but this can be applied to any area, whether it’s sports, music, or fighting.
Ged from A Wizard of Earthsea has magic most accurately classified as a skill. It is learned, in a school, and honed through practice and concentration. Elemental magic systems usually map as abilities: elementalists are born being able to control their specific set of elements, and often do so with no training or instruction whatsoever. If you’ve ever seen Avatar: The Last Airbender, or played a game such as Golden Sun, you’ll know what I mean.
For “attributes”, I think it’s easiest to use examples from gaming systems. In many RPGs, such as Elder Scrolls or Dragon Warrior, characters are assessed in several attributes, such as strength, speed, luck, and intelligence. These are general characteristics used to calculate health, attack damage or mana points. They are generally not learned, but increase automatically as a game progresses. Now, in a book, this progression will not be made in terms of points or levels, but more vaguely, in terms of “becoming stronger”. The character will be able to swing a sword harder, run faster and farther, or figure out more difficult puzzles.
A strong character, and one that a good story can be built around, requires that each of these aspects be known and balanced against story obstacles. Some aspects are more amenable to fudging or simplicity, but ideally, they would all be fleshed out and used to determine the course of the story.
Some of these aspects answer questions that came up in the plot recipe.
The skill and personality aspects deal with how the students from the previous post would act up. If they were good at manipulation and had outgoing personalities they might incite crime or riots among other students. If they knew a lot about computers, they might cheat on tests by hacking the system. If they were physically fit and prone to violence, they might abuse other students, terrorize teachers, or destroy school property. They drive the plot.
The motivation aspect answers the story question. If they wanted to get good jobs and rise in public society, they would have to work hard to outshine all the other students, and meet the demands placed on students by the government, such as high test scores and acquiring skills in profitable sectors of the economy. If they didn’t have the drive, they might burn out or drop out, and resort to rebellious behavior. And if they were intelligent, driven, and angry, they might… Well, you’ll just have to wait until the book finds a publisher to get the answer for that one.
Finally, how is the story idea affected by the character aspects? Well, image doesn’t map very well onto any of the plot aspects. The story idea, being the main thing that makes the story stand out, is going to affect all of the aspects of character, rather than being affected by any of them. The setting is going to influence the fashions, and thus the character images; the level of tech and the environment, and thus skills and motivations; and also the socio-cultural climate, and thus the characters personalities, and their way of expressing themselves. Keep in mind that we’re only talking about how to start a story. As a writer, you’ll have to deal with all of these things eventually.
This post has gotten rather longer than I expected. In the next post, we’ll discuss more about how these various aspects affect the story; and after that, common terms for different character types, and how these types impact the story the character is in.