Building Your Main Character

I have one question for you: What city is your character from? To some this may seem like a silly question, but to a serious author it is a critical piece of information. It's easy to create a character. All you have to do is decide gender and give this person a name. But that's not what we're in the business of doing... We create people; real people.

In any creative writing or screenwriting class they will tell you on day one that your story is intended to suspend disbelief. What does that mean? It means, even though your story is made up, the reader is supposed to be so engrossed in the plot they forget that truth. That's how books and movies elicit emotions from people. One way to ensure this happens is by creating people for your book that readers will believe.

Create a Backstory for Your People

I want you to imagine an adult person being created out of thin air. With no prior history in this world, what kind of person would they be? I would venture to say this person would be as bland as unseasoned chicken. When you introduce a character into your novel that has no backstory, this is exactly the kind of person you're creating. The backstory is probably the single most important element of the character.

Your personal backstory is your life; all of the things you've experienced to date. And how important are those things in defining who you are today? Your life has helped to shape your personality, and your personality dictates your decision-making. The progression and direction of any plot is determined by the choices that the characters in that story make. At each turn they are faced with decisions, and their choices should not solely be the artistic choice of the almighty writer, but a realistic reaction based on the character's personality. This is what lends authenticity to your story and reveals the true nature of a character to the reader without the use of exposition.

Add Complication to Your Person

I remember reading a book where the question was posed, "Why do some bad people live prosperous lives, and some good people live undesirable lives?" The answer to that question is simple: People are not created in absolutes. No one is 100% bad, nor is anyone completely good. On top of that, people never see themselves as they truly are in reality. And that's why we make decisions that are contrary to who we believe ourselves to be in life. People are complicated, but isn't that what separates us from the other animals? Isn't that what makes us interesting? Isn't that why we spend countless hours watching documentaries, and reality TV?

When you sit down to build your character, and you're creating the backstory, make sure that it adds contradiction to the person. Contradiction that will be relevant to the story and the choices this person will have to make. Your character was raised with money, but has a secret theft addiction that developed out of boredom. Superman is undeniably one of the most popular and recognizable superheroes in the world--a fact we can all agree upon. He is the most powerful superhero in the comic book world. Even with all of that said, there is still one character more popular than the Man of Steel: Batman. And why? Because he is more complicated and layered than Superman. Every decision that Superman makes is predictable, but Batman... Though his story is not likely to happen to anyone we know, he is still more like a real person: flawed. He watched his parents be murdered, and that event fuels his entire life. He's filthy rich, but wants to be a masked vigilante in the most crime infested city. He chose the bat as his symbol, and hangs out in a bat cave, even though he had a fear of bats. He has a no murder policy for criminals that are actually serial killers. It is safe to say that he is not a one-dimensional character, but one that was painstakingly fleshed out. (Here's an article that explains the difference between the two super heroes:

Give the Person a Weakness

This is a subcategory to the character having complication. No character can be all powerful consistently without having some sort of weakness. This is not something physical, as in the case of Superman who had a weakness in the form of kryptonite. This weakness is something psychological that when presented can derail even the strongest character's winning streak. Your character can have multiple antagonists to face over the course a story. One of those can come in the form of an inner battle being fought, as outwardly they face some other physical, more tangible, foe. This adds depth to the story. If your story were a piece of chicken, this weakness and inner struggle is the spices.

I know how eager we can be to skip to the actual writing part of our book. Writing a book, however, is like cooking a meal. Most of the work is in the prep time. The cooking part is easy. Don't cheat your readers or yourself no matter how tempting it may be to rush the writing.

NEXT ARTICLE: Getting Hooked: How to Pull In a Reader

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Jarray Davis is the author of Elevators in My Mind

IG: @booksplaining101

Twitter: @booksplaining1


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