Novel Writing 101: A Great Story Starts with the Characters

Think about some of your favorite books. What is it that drew you into the story the first time? Maybe it was a cool idea (dinosaurs! time travel!) or an exotic setting (space stations! Middle Earth!). Or maybe you were lured in by the art on the cover. But whatever caused you to pick it up in the first place, I’m guessing what kept you reading was the characters.

Because when it comes down to it, a great story is all about fascinating characters. When we read a book, we want to live through the characters – we want to see the world through their eyes, experience their sorrows and triumphs, and maybe gain some perspective on our own lives through theirs. If you, as the writer, can create well-rounded, interesting, driven characters that draw the reader in, they’ll stick with your story till the end.

So back to Novel Writing 101. I’m hoping that you’ve gathered tons of great ideas, and that your mind has been whirring away thinking about the shape of your story and what it will be about. We’re going to work on turning those initial ideas into a plot sentence to guide your writing, but we have to know a little bit more about the story first…which brings us back to the characters.

What makes a plot? Essentially, as I discussed in my plot vs. premise post earlier, a plot is all about a protagonist (that’s your main character) trying to achieve a goal in a setting and facing opposition (conflict) from an antagonist (aka the bad guy). Now I’m sure you’ve read stories that don’t have one main antagonist who is an actual person. Sometimes there are several; sometimes there isn’t a person at all – think man vs. nature or man vs. self. But I can say that for a beginning writer, having a concrete villain will be easier to write.

To move your story idea to a full plot, you need to know more about your characters. To help you, here’s a list of questions to consider. You might want to create one page for each character in your notebook, or type and print them out to save in folders or a binder.

For the main character(s):

  1. Basic information – name, age, occupation, physical description. It’s okay to keep this down to what’s necessary at this point, and add details as you need them.
  2. Strengths and weaknesses – What is this character good at? What are the things holding them back, and are they aware of these weaknesses? Flaws are a necessary part of making your character someone readers can relate to.
  3. Personality – Again, keep it brief at this point (you’ll get to know your characters more as you write), but how do you envision this character? Talkative or shy? Cheerful or pessimistic? Closed off or giving? Some writers even give their characters Myers Briggs personality types.
  4. Wants and needs – Here’s the critical part for developing your plot. What does your character want? And I don’t mean pizza for dinner. What does your character want so badly they’d give almost anything to get it? It can be ambiguous at this point, like “respect” or “love,” but in a minute we’ll take that want and transform it into a concrete goal. The other part of this question is, what does your character need? It may or may not be the same as the thing they want; it could, in fact, be the opposite. Often characters (like real people), don’t recognize what they need because they’re so focused on what they want. A person may want money, but perhaps what they really need is to learn to be content with what they already have.
  5. Goal – Now we’re getting to the plot. Think about what your character wants. How can you turn that into a concrete, attainable goal? Perhaps your character wants love. What could her goal be? Find a date by prom? Try an online dating service for two months? Or say your character wants respect – maybe he is determined to get a promotion or win the election regardless of the cost. Whatever you choose for your character’s goal will shape the course of your story.
  6. Backstory notes – Have any ideas come to mind yet for your character’s history? Write them down now, because you’ll want to develop these more as you work on creating a full character arc later. Again, focus on the most important events – whatever might affect your character’s actions and decisions during the course of the story.

For the antagonist, essentially you will want to go back through the above list and answer as many questions as possible. Villains who are evil incarnate are generally not as interesting as conflicted people who’ve made bad choices but think they have a good reason for it. The better developed your villain is, the more engaging your story will be. You’ll want to pay special attention to your antagonist’s want and story goal, because it will need to be in direct conflict with your main character’s (otherwise, the villain wouldn’t be much of an antagonist).

You might want to keep a separate list of scene ideas going, or even jot each down on an index card, because as you work through these questions your brain will start throwing ideas at you. Wouldn’t it be cool if… Trust me, you won’t remember them later. Always write your ideas down!

I have a lot of work to do now fleshing out my characters, so I’ll meet you in a couple of weeks with notes in hand. And remember, it’s okay if you don’t know all the answers yet. Your characters will become more clear to you as you write. If you think of other great questions or character insights I’ve left out, feel free to leave me a comment!



3 thoughts on “Novel Writing 101: A Great Story Starts with the Characters

  1. Characters are key for me! I will forgive minor plot holes and weak writing IF I’ve fallen in love with characters. I’ll be hooked if I want to know how the characters resolve their conflicts, make it through another day alive, or to find out if they finally get together. But if I don’t FEEL for the character; if the writer doesn’t show me (not tell me) why I should care what happens to her or him, then it’s just another series of unfortunate events. 😉


  2. Pingback: Novel Writing 101: Outlines – Pulling It all Together | Kellie Michelle Parker

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