Developing a Solid Main Character
Stories revolve around one or more main characters, and when I wrote my first three books, I did not have a character development process. I began typing with no plan, and during the long editing process, I shored shore up the character background, descriptions, and motives. This learning experience taught me to start my fourth book with an outline and a basic character biography. This pre-process reduces writing time and editing, which results in a stronger story.
What are a solid main character’s elements? I have learned that including a background near the character’s first appearance is critical. Readers need a mental picture of the person taking action, which allows the reader to connect. Next, the reader needs to know their motivation. The plot will revolve around the main character, and readers must fully understand the character’s mindset. Finally, the character needs an appropriate description of their physical attributes.
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 loses races. How does losing affect Bob’s outlook, and how does this affect the people around Bob? The author should provide this insight to understand Bob’s inner workings clearly. Readers should comprehend his troubles and relate to his ability to handle them, meaning the author must dedicate a few sentences to Bob’s thoughts.
An important tip is to differentiate the character’s personality from the author’s. Why? The author needs to (mentally) ask questions about this person during the writing process. For example, “Bob, how did you feel about losing that last race?” To answer, the author must put themselves into the character. This differs vastly from thinking, “How would I feel about losing a race?” Character Bob is distinct. For example, Bob might be arrogant and think, “It’s the car’s fault,” while the easy-going author would never blame their car. An author’s only motivation should be to write a powerful book.
I now understand having characters based on my family or friends was a big mistake. For example, one of my main characters was an Electrical Engineer who had a painful relationship breakup. While this added power to the character, it vastly limited them because they could not break out of what I had become.
How do I come up with my characters? Some characters are based on people I know. In my second book, I based one character on a former boss, Steve. 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.
However, most of my characters are pure fiction. I start by thinking about how somebody would react to a plot obstacle identified in the outline. Then, I toss the characters around. How would a man react? How would a child react? How would a disabled person react? Think of this process as panning for gold. Eventually, the good stuff settles to the bottom. To keep a character’s personality separate from my own, I make them (a lot) stronger, weaker, more intelligent, or wealthier.
Are characters different from my life less real to the reader? There is an unquestionable comfort in writing about a character that is based on a real person. Yet, I now understand they are flat. For example, I could establish a character on my neighbor, but what if I wanted to give this person a verbal tick or reduced intelligence? That would read all wrong because I know my neighbor. But if I made up a character, I could make them any way I desired.
Writing is fun, and I get a lot out of it. Next to the plot, the main characters are the most essential part of a book. Treat them well, and they will treat you well. Or maybe they will get into big arguments with you if they are too real?

You’re the best -Bill
October 03, 2018 Updated September 10, 2023

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