While plot-driven novels are usually more commercial - thrillers, epic fantasies, etc, character-driven novels can be quieter and focus more on the internal growth and experiences of the character.
However, I argue that for a novel to truly impact a reader, it must balance character and plot. In the last chapter, we explored the contributions plot must make to a novel; let’s move on now to the contributions characters make.
Your main character could be referred to as your protagonist, your MC, or your hero. Go with whatever works for you! Your character should be unique in some way. If you’ve read a story about a character like the one you have in mind before, then you want to change something about the character. Think of Enola Holmes. How many stories had we read or watched about her brother Sherlock? How exciting then to explore a story about her?
In Gridiron Girl, I write about a girl who wants to be the starting quarterback. There are certainly other books about girls playing football, but a story about a girl wanting to be quarterback differs from many of the stories we’d seen previously about girls playing the sport. And even more, a girl competing against her boyfriend for the position made Julia even more unique!
How can you rework your vision of your character to a place that’s a little less expected? Creating a unique, unexpected character makes them interesting. Once you have an interesting character, the next step is taking them on an interesting journey, and that relies on their motivation. In other words, what does your character want?
Your character must want or yearn for something. This is part of how the MC drives the story. It’s IMPERATIVE that you are able to answer the question: what does your MC want? Some people often referred to this want as the story goal.
In addition to the goal, you should understand your character’s motivation, obstacles, and stakes.
Goal, Motivation, Obstacles, Stakes
Goal = what your character wants
Motivation = why you character wants this
Obstacles = what could prevent your character from achieving the goal
Stakes = what will happen to your character if they fail
Knowing the goal, motivation, obstacles, and stakes is crucial to understanding your character and knowing how that intersection between character and plot occurs.
But we are also talking about character agency here. Readers want to read about a character who drives their own story. The action in the story should not be happening to the character; the character’s decisions should drive the action. Often when characters are not showing agency, the writing feels contrived and convenient.
For instance, your protagonist must find something. It is critical to moving on in the story. What if the character finds it because someone delivers it to them? Problem solved!
No. This is too convenient, and the character has not shown agency. Create a situation in which the character must actively search for the item. Place obstacles in their way. Make them feel that they will never find this thing, and their life will change catastrophically as a result. Rely on their physical, emotional, or mental skills to find the item. That is how characters show agency.
Wants vs. Needs
We’ve talked about what your character wants, but there is another level to that concept that helps complicate your character and your storytelling. Your character should want something AND need something. Some of the best stories create conflict when what the character wants is in direct conflict with what the character needs. For instance, in Toy Story, Woody wants to remain Andy’s favorite toy, but what Woody needs is to find a way to accept Buzz. To develop strong characters, considering their wants and needs is important.
Let’s also think about a character’s arc. To be a truly satisfying story, the character must grow and change as a result of the plot. The character drives the plot, but the plot changes the character. The character cannot go through the moments of this story without being changed. That’s what makes the story matter. That’s what makes the reader satisfied.
A story that comes to mind is the classic film, Pretty Woman. In this film, Julia Roberts plays the role of a prostitute named Vivian that encounters a very wealthy businessman named Edward. She accompanies him on his week-long trip, so that he doesn’t have to pay any attention to romantic matters, and instead, he can focus on business alone. Of course, he falls in love with her.
At the beginning of the story, Vivian is on a dark trajectory in life. We see her before world in the setup, and it is grim. In her line of work, she has a rule not to kiss a man on the mouth because it is too personal. This is something important to her as a character. So her character arc is fairly hopeless at the beginning of the story. However, as she spends time with Edward, we see her potential, and she grows. Suddenly, her life doesn’t appear as grim, although that reality is hovering.
In the plot, there is a moment when Edwards tries to kiss Vivian, but she resists. Later in the story, though, she kisses him on the mouth. We see that this moment is critical because she has abandoned her personal rule. She has changed as a character. This is a moment in the story when character and plot collide. Edward knows the significance of this moment, too. They both know it. Something has changed.
After Vivian has changed from her time with Edward, she cannot go back to her “before” world. Her character arc has altered its trajectory.
Think about stories you know well. What are those critical moments that a character trait collides with a plot point, and we know the trajectory of the character’s arc has changed? Watch for these moments in movies and books you consume.
Notice how we didn’t talk about a character check sheet or physical attributes of the character. Developing character is so much more than a basic worksheet about the superficial attributes of the character. Some writers develop a Pinterest board with images of their characters, so they have that in mind. In my sports series, I have rosters for the teams that list the height, weight, and positions of the characters. I also have the rotation for the volleyball team, so I know who is in which position as I develop the game time situations. There are absolutely those logistical details that are important for you as you develop your character, but I want to encourage you to look at your characters more deeply than those attributes, especially early on!
The List of 20
Sometimes it can be difficult to develop unique ideas for your character’s traits, goals, motivation, obstacles, and stakes. To solve this problem, a good romance author friend, Susan Meier suggests a list of 20. That means she asks herself a question: What could my love interest’s occupation be in the story? And she answers that with a list of 20 ideas. She said the first four or five tend to be the expected, overdone options. Then she gets a few viable ideas around 8-12. She finds that the option she ultimately selects tends to be near 15, and the last few are often quirky options to round out the list rather than viable candidates.
You might want to adopt the list of 20 for your own books. Or you might not. The idea here is to move beyond the expected. If you’ve seen it done before, you probably don’t want to do it again. If you expect that a main character in a mystery should be a police detective, then are you missing an opportunity to write a unique main character? If you think a murderer should be malicious and terrifying, are you missing the opportunity to write the story of the murderous nun or grandmother?
Finally, if you're having a difficult time with your list of 20, consider trying your hand at artificial intelligence. Ask an AI program to answer the question, and see what ideas you can mine from the responses.
- Brainstorm a list of five different “wants” a character might have. Once you have your five goals, then brainstorm a corresponding “need” for each. How can you make those needs contradict the wants? How will that add conflict and further layers to your story?
- Explore an artificial intelligence resources such as ChatGPT by entering a question into the search for a List of 20. For instance: Give me a list of 20 character traits an overworked mom might demonstrate every day. Or, can you make a list of 20 ways to show a person loves the outdoors? How is your experience with AI? Is it something you might use in the future or avoid as you continue working on your novels?
- Create a vision board for your characters. Use a program such as Pinterest - you can keep the board private if you’d like - and collect photos of what your main character might look like, outfits they would wear, their closest friends, where they live, places important to them. This will help you visualize and build relevant details in to your story.
Giving your Characters Agency
Your Ultimate Guide to Character Development
"Chapter 5: Creating Compelling Characters" was created by Tamara Girardi and was licensed as CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 in October of 2023.