Setting up the Main Character

In an attempt to add some content to the blog I’ve decided to write down a few ways I write. It’s not a “how to” type of post, but more of a “how I do it.” Any mentions of you, Characterdoesn’t necessarily mean “you.” It’s more like I’m talking to myself, pointing at my reflections saying “you” while reminding myself of the little things I do when coming up with a character.

The first thing I normally do is come up with some sort of idea for a story. This is one of those things where the writer can never pin down their inspiration for such a thing, but it can come from anywhere, or anything. Whether the idea for the story pops into the brain while making the daily commute to work, or seeing something online, or seeing a hobo whack a guy on the head with a giant smiley face sign, there is no one place to gather ones inspiration. But, I’m not here to talk about that. What I want to discuss has to do with the characters in the tale.

So, you have this idea of a story, and it is basic, just an idea. Now in order for this thing to work the inclusion of people, or aliens, or whatever, that are effected by this idea and see how they deal with the situation. Sometimes the idea comes with its own set of characters; an elf has to learn to live with a troll in the apartment building where they share a room. Again, this is a basic concept needing a great deal of fleshing out.

What do I do? I set the idea on the back burner and begin to work on who my characters are in the story. I don’t forget the story idea. It sits there just a few inches away asking for attention while I figure out who the characters are and why they matter at all. I know that the story idea affects the characters and vice versa, but in order for it to work I need that character, we will call him Fez, he needs to have a whole life leading up to the point where we finally meet him. Do I write his biography? No, but I do sketch out an outline or a couple of pages of written material to start figuring out who Fez is. In most cases I would have created a bare bones outline of the story with the few main characters that would be involved (normally I only have two to three characters at this point). I have an idea of what they will do, and how they might solve the dilemma in front of them. Starting from this I work my way backwards to figure out what might have caused Fez to find himself dealing with the main conflict in the story. This can be helpful and hurtful.

There is such a thing as too much backstory. No one cares about their daily grind enough to read a hundred pages about how Fez got a job at GameStop, his morning routine when he wakes up, the hours he sits at home watching Netflix, or that he only eats purple Skittles. All of these things can be mentioned, but they shouldn’t take up more than a couple lines on the page. I don’t care about who they dated in high school, unless it has something to do with the action in the now. I don’t need to know the names of the bullies from junior high. I would like to see the insecurities that still haunt Fez from when he was bullied, and that those insecurities have followed him since that time in his life, but I don’t need superfluous information about being bullied. I got it, I remember.

While developing the backstory I start to think about what Fez looks like. He’s got dirty blonde hair, gray eyes, and has a lanky build, but isn’t emaciated looking. He’s healthy, or healthy enough, and has one of those metabolisms that allow him to eat what he wants. However, if he misses a meal, he gets groggy, irritated, and may even lose weight. Or, maybe he’s a brunette, a little chunky, and has a problem with taking a leak standing up. I don’t know. In most cases I take aspects about myself (I don’t have a problem taking a leak standing up, just in case you were wondering), and people I know, or have known, in my life. I pick certain traits and pile it all on Fez and see what sticks. He bites his nails, likes to wear a ring on his right middle finger, is rarely seen wearing shorts, hums to himself when he needs to concentrate. Does he drink? Does he smoke? Does he listen to classic rock or whatever?

The best way to think about Fez is to regard him as your new friend you want to get to know. In the real world this will take time with multiple meetings with other friends there that can distract. As for getting to know Fez it will still take time, but you have the ability to visit with this person as much as you like since they live in your head and not across town. Just like getting to know a real person you get introduced to other aspects of their life. You get to see the friends they keep, you get to hear about the weird homeless guy who hit him with a smiley face sign, and how his boss at GameStop is a douchebag. Knowing all of this stuff is great, but that doesn’t mean it belongs in the story. Yet, if you know this about Fez once you start the book, you know you can write about him honestly. By knowing Fez, you have an idea how he would react to the story idea.

Stay tuned. I’ll have more to write on Fez soon, and eventually I will talk about secondary characters, as well as bad guys and anti-heroes.

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