Writing fiction isn’t just about blowing up zombie nests, comforting weeping widows, or tracking down Hannibal Lector.
Creating fiction is all about the discovery of what makes people tick. Why do they do the things they do? What drives them? Where do they come from, physically and psychologically? How do they find enough courage to go forward after tremendous setbacks? When do they dig in and when do they retreat? Who are they at the most basic and instinctive level?
Can you answer the above questions for your protagonist? Your antagonist? What about your secondary characters?
Develop this sort of information in your individual character dossiers because it’s going to be the soil from which your plot grows. And it’s far more important than whether your character has deepset eyes and a unibrow.
Let’s create an example:
I like to start character design with a name. Names carry connotations and help prod my imagination.
So this guy will be Solly Sample. Solly is short for Solomon.
He grew up Jewish in a small Louisiana town without a synagogue. All Solly knows about being Jewish is a childhood without Christmas like other kids and an elderly uncle with numbers tattooed on his arm. His mother died years ago, and his father owns a hardware store that’s struggled since a Lowe’s was built ten miles away. Dad supplements his income by rewiring old lamps for customers.
Solly wants to impress his father. As a kid, he resented the time his parents spent working in their store. Solly wanted more attention and approval than he ever got. He was also picked on at school for being Jewish, and that’s fueled his desire to make a big splash, to be someone important.
So instead of hard work–because what did hard work ever do for the old man except make him tired–Solly is always seeking short cuts. He dropped out of junior college when his mom got sick. Now he thinks he can’t get a good job because he doesn’t have a degree. He turns down a steady job at his brother-in-law’s concrete business because it’s hard, dirty work and too blue-collar to fit Solly’s dreams. He chases get-rich-quick schemes and blames everyone but himself when they fail. He wants a fancy car, but he can only afford it used. When it breaks down, he’s angry at the dealer who sold him a hurricane-rotted piece of junk.
Solly is approaching middle-age with nothing to show for it but a beer gut, fading dreams, and desperation. His marriage is rocky. He never has time to spend with his young son, always brushing the kid aside with promises he doesn’t keep. They need his wife’s income, but Solly hates her working because it makes him look like a poor provider. So he criticizes her for not keeping a better house. If she’s too tired to cook and brings home fast-food takeout, he gripes about that, too.
So when Solly hears that a local meth dealer needs a new runner, is he going to apply for the job? Or is he going to be too afraid to seize the opportunity? It’s easy money, maybe big money, but the risks are high. Solly is afraid of jail. He’s never used drugs and doesn’t want to.
Will he convince himself that he can work such a job and stay clean? Will he back away, too afraid, yet despising himself for his cowardice? What incentive or event might push him over the threshold into a life of crime?
Okay, I’ve built an unpleasant character here. I don’t like him, do you? Currently he’s at secondary-character level. If I decided to make him a protagonist, I would have to raise the stakes and do more with his psychological profile. He would need enough positive personality traits to give him redemptive potential.
Now, with this little exercise in mind, where would my story start? In all the character design, where’s the plot?
Exactly! When he finds out there’s a job running meth. That’s when he has choices of action.
When you’re building characters, take care that you don’t mistake characterization for a plot line. While the unfolding of character and the testing of character infuse the plot, they don’t stand alone. You need conflict, action, and dilemma–all ways in which to push at your character’s flaws and move him forward to something better than he has initially or move him backward into a much worse person.