Before I start writing a new story, I need to spend some pretty serious time with the main characters. Yes, I need to figure out their name, appearance, abilities (since I write fantasy), etc. But that’s not the really important stuff. To figure out what I have to know about the character before I can start planning out the story, I have to go deeper than that.
The basis of what I use for figuring out the essentials about my main character come from Lisa Cron’s book Story Genius. (She has another writing book called Wired for Story that’s also excellent.) Too many character building sources out there advocate for silly things, like knowing your character’s favorite food, color, childhood memory, or their political opinions. And, depending on your story, all those things might be completely and utterly irrelevant.
Have readers discovered a favorite childhood memory from Tavor? No. Does that mean they understand him less? Nope. Do readers know what Darios’s favorite food is? Again, no. Is this information important for them to understand his character? Absolutely not.
So what is essential for both writers and readers to know about a character? What a character wants. What their goal is, why they want it, what they’re willing to do to get it, and what’s in their way of getting it. More than that, how are they getting in their own way and how will they overcome it?
These are essential questions. I can’t write a story without knowing what my characters’ aim is and why they want it. And readers can’t enjoy a story if they don’t know the why behind a main character’s actions. It can be hidden for a while, but eventually needs to come out. Otherwise us readers feel cheated or like the character wasn’t true to what we’ve already learned about them.
For example, Ali starts out The Genie Whisperer dead set on gaining her independence so she can escape her parents’ control and finally have a healthy relationship with them. We know both her goal and motivation. And her big issue is her belief that she can’t accept any help, because it will both mean that she’s not independent and that someone else then expects her to owe them. She needs to overcome this to achieve the deep, healthy connection with others that she craves. As the series goes on, she develops a new goal to help the genies be free, but also comes to realize that the connections she wants don’t have to be with her parents. She can forge those connections on her own with a found family, as she does with the genies.
Something else Lisa Cron advocates for is for authors to come up with three specific scenes that led to characters developing their issue that they need to overcome. I’ve found this immensely helpful for crafting believable characters, though some of that backstory ends up in the book and some doesn’t. Ali’s had multiple flashbacks over how controlling her parents were, which are some of the scenes I thought up while developing her character, and Garan’s backstory of what happened during The Society wars are very relevant within the story for explaining why he was so lost in his mind.
Some of the other genies’ backstories haven’t really been relevant and won’t be revealed in the same way within the books, but I might do a post revealing all those scenes after The Genie Whisperer finishes publishing 🙂