I’d say the majority of writers like to start a story with a character, and I’m one of them. Usually a face I’ve seen somewhere takes hold of my imagination and I begin to build a character behind it. Before I list tips on how to start a story with a character, I want to emphasize two dangers when developing characters.
Too Much Backstory and Not Enough Real Story
One problem with creating characters is that a writer will get so caught up in characters charts, personality quizzes, and history that he or she neglects to actually move on to writing a story. Playing with our characters is fun, like playing with our kids. But at some point, playtime is over, and it’s time to do homework.
You probably know some writers who are always in the planning stages of writing a novel, who talk all the time about the fascinating characters they’re developing. But they never graduate to plotting a story.
When you first discover an intriguing character, by all means, have fun. Enjoy the discovery process as the character reveals different aspects of her personality and history. But keep in the back of your mind all this fun is pointless unless you actual settle down to writing a story about this great character.
Take Off the Rose-Colored Glasses
Characters are like our children. We often overlook their flaws and only see their virtues. This can be deadly in a story. If I’m reading a story in which one of the main characters is consistently praised by every other character, I begin to dislike him or her. If you have a likable character, let readers come to that realization on their own. Those kind of discoveries are a joy for readers. You don’t have to prime the reader’s pump by having the other characters constantly point out a main character’s sterling qualities. Yes, friends or family would complement each other, but keep it to a realistic minimum.
One of the things I enjoyed about writing my mystery short story, “Bovine”, was describing my fictional Marlin County, Ohio, in a negative way. The main character is a New York novelist who comes to the county to enact his perfect crime. Not being used to country life, or country people, and being entirely self-absorbed and nasty, he views the area through his snobby perception. He considers all locals “bovine.” Not only was this character a change of pace for me but it helped me see my fictional world in a new way.
Make Your Character Fit Your Genre
If your hero has weathered more trials than Job, he probably won’t work in a rom-com. If he’s a comedian, he might not fit in a gritty police procedural. Once you have a decent grasp on your main character, determine which genre will work best for him.
Road Test Your Character
If you have no idea what kind of plot to drop your character into, write a few scenes as road tests to see how she operates under different conditions.
- A scene in which she is kind
- A scene in which she is angry
- A scene in which she has a victory
- A scene in which she has a defeat
- A scene with her best friend
- A scene with her closest relative
- A scene with an enemy
- A scene with a difficult person
After you’ve seen how your character behaves, hopefully, you will start generating ideas for plot in which he can get to work.
For another view on creating characters, click here for a ten-part series on The Write Conversation.
For character prompts, click here.
How do you start a story with a character?
I joined a writing group one time where I was encouraged to keep a bible about my characters and one about the town they lived in. I spent almost a year putting them together. When I finally started writing my story, I felt chained to those bibles whenever I wanted to make changes in personalities and scenery. I never finished the story. And the bibles ended up in a storage box.
These are great pointers! When I brainstorm new characters, I like to take author Abbie Emmons’s advice and come up with the character’s D, F, M (desire, fear, misbelief about life). That has helped me figure out the backstory but also get to the plot by challenging the character’s misbelief with what will ultimately become the book’s theme (courage to overcome, forgiveness, etc).