Writing a Good Main Character
Books generally revolve around one or more main characters. When I wrote my first three books, I wasn’t thinking about structure or character development. I just jumped into writing the first page. Later in the editing process, I added a lot to the characters. They gained background, got better descriptions and had a clearer definition of their motives. This made my book a lot stronger with a good plot foundation. In my fourth book, I did something radically different. I started with an outline. In addition, I wrote a basic biography of each character. The result was a more structured plot with refined characters.
What are the elements of a good main character? First, when introducing a central figure, it’s essential to provide a solid background. This person will be leading the story and the reader has to connect to them. Next, the reader needs to know their motivation. The plot is going to revolve around the main character and readers require a solid connection to the characters decisions. Readers don’t react well to random decisions. Finally, the reader has to have a good character description. It’s the author’s job to place the body of the character into the reader's mind.
Now that the foundation has been laid, the character must become involved with the plot. A good character leads the plot. This means that they make the choices and interact with the consequences. For example, there is a fork in the road and Jane choose left. She did make her decision based upon her local knowledge. It turns out that the right path was the better choice. The author then describes how Jane regretted her decision.
As the plot builds, so should the characters. Characters are never static, they grow, fail, succeed and change. For example, car driver Bob wins many races and then he begins to lose races. How does losing effect Bob’s outlook and how does this affect the people around Bob? The author should provide this insight to build a clear picture of Bob’s inner workings. Readers should comprehend his troubles and relate to his ability to handle them.
It’s important to note that the characters personality should be different than the author’s personality. During the writing process, the author needs to ask questions about this person. For example, “Bob, how did you feel about losing that last race?” Mentally, the author needs to put themselves into the character Bob and answer that question. This is vastly different from an author thinking, “Alright, how would I feel about losing a race?” Character Bob is distinct and unique. For example, he might be arrogant and think, “It’s the car’s fault.” In the plot, Bob has motivations, distractions, limitations, and rewards. An author’s only motivation should be to write a great book.
By the end of the book, the reader should have a clear grasp of the main characters. How do I come up with my character framework? Some characters are based on people I know. In my second book tentatively titled Kim and Gabe Survive, I based one character on a former boss, Steve. Granted the character name is different, but when I was writing, I pictured myself asking Steve questions and estimating his responses. In that same book, I had a protagonist based on an evil co-worker. I even captured the tasteless way he dressed. This helped me to pump angry emotions into my words.
For the rest of my characters, I had a distinct idea of what kind of a person they were. I made sure to keep their personality separate from my own. In general, I make them stronger, weaker, smarter or wealthier. In this way, it is easier to distance them from myself and estimate how a distinctly different person would react to the situation that I have put them into.
Early on in my writing, many of my characters hit close to home. In my second book, the main character was an Electrical Engineer like me. He described a painful relationship breakup that was taken directly from my life’s experiences. As my fourth book started with an outline, I went to much greater lengths to distance my character from my personal life. My reasoning was that this would provide the characters with more depth. Or was it that I had run out of good characters form my life?
Are distant characters less real to the reader? There is a certain comfort in writing about a character based on a real person. I loosely biased a character on my Uncle Al. In my latest book, I have a completely made up prison warden. I gave him a verbal tick with reduced intelligence. Which character reads better? Difficult to say from my perspective; I like them both. I suspect that if asked readers would find the warden more amusing that character based on my uncle more interesting.
Writing is fun and I get a lot out of it. Next, to the plot, the main characters are the most important part of a book. Treat them well and they will treat you well.
You’re the best -Bill
October 03, 2018
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