Some people begin with a novel by defining their plot. Others start with the protagonist. I have a tendency to fixate on one or the other while I’m creating an idea for a story. In my last short story, the idea of what Chronoman could do was much more significant than who the man beneath the mask was. When it came writing the Meouch comics and A Death in the Family, everything began with characters.
Who Are They?
I have a whole questionnaire I fill out from time to time, but for Frankie the Cat in Meouch, and for Ben in A Death in the Family, I just needed some basic info to get started.
- What does this person do?
- What makes them different?
- Are they action-takers, or reactionary?
Frankie is an assassin. He’s tiny, and uses ridiculous weapons, and he’s a cat, all of which informs who he is in the comics. He has a job, an owner, a client. All of those things are fine, but he had to stand out. He breaks the fourth-wall, mostly by talking to the reader or by having awareness of being in a comic. He swears in cat puns. (And only cat puns.) Aside from the fact that he’s hired to do his job, I consider Frankie an action taker.
Ben, on the other hand, is a Reaper. (As in, Grim Reaper.) He’s in his mid-20s, lives at home with his family, and spends the novel trying to get used to his new job/life, previously unexposed to the magical community. Making Ben different was difficult, because the story of “normal” person entering the secret parallel magical world isn’t new. So I had him stick to his regular clothing. I had him argue with his Scythe – an extradimensional tool with sentience, an attitude, and no ability to use the English language – and befriend a Reaper’s greatest enemy: a Necromancer. Like Frankie, Ben is assigned his tasks. But Ben is much more reactionary, at least in A Death in the Family. He’s still getting used to things, so he doesn’t make as many decisions as he wishes he could.
Are They a Good Fit for the Story?
Knowing who the character is – and my answers definitely came with some retrospection of having written some stories already – is the first step. Next is to figure out if they belong in the story you want to write for them. Some considerations:
- Is the genre right?
- Is the medium right?
- Is the tone right?
I read a lot of superhero stories. But neither Frankie or Ben could be superheroes. Frankie kills for a living. His allegiances don’t stretch very far. When we plotted the first story, we settled on a job. Operation Bad Dog. A hit. If we’re going to call him an assassin, he’s got to kill something.
Ben is a hero, from his first decision to take up the Scythe all the way through. A Reaper’s job, in the book, is to take the soul to protect it from corruption. I wanted something of an apocalypse, so I needed a character to stop it, someone who had to care enough to put themselves at risk.
Are They Alone?
No man is an island. Everyone needs a supporting role, somewhere, in their narrative. Frankie has his owner and his client, which appear in each of the two comics in print at the moment. Ben has his family, for a start, as well as a number of people he’s introduced to in his first few days on the job – the previous Reaper, people from Damage Control, the Necromancer, and more.
Your novel might include more than one protagonist. They don’t necessarily need to meet, either. Think about the following:
- How many points of view do you need, versus how many you want?
- Does your protagonist have anyone to talk to?
- Are you introducing characters that serve no purpose?
My advice would be to limit the number of characters you include in your book, depending on its size, especially if they’re always together. Names are fine, and relatively easy to keep track of if they’re different enough. Keeping track of what everyone in a group is doing is more complicated, for both readers and writers. Make things easier on everyone, and cap it based on the length of the story you’re writing.
There are a lot of things you can think about when creating new characters. There’s basic biological data (Height, Weight, Body Type), relationships (Family, Significant Other), occupation & vocation (Job, Religion), and desires (What do they want most from life?), and that’s barely scratching the surface.
Some authors are known to base their character’s looks around an actor’s or model’s. That’s fine, if it’s done tastefully and believably. Personalities, however, ought to be unique and formed by experience. The more you know about your characters before you start writing, the better.
NaNo begins in just over two weeks. (Unless you’re reading this at a time other than the posting date – then you need to look at the calendar and figure it out for yourself.)