Usually, my ideas start with a world. Then I try to find the conflict, the story, and maybe some of the plot. This involves finding the protagonist, the antagonist, maybe a few other key players.
But at some point, the massive crowd of “others” in the story needs to become somebodies.
And here I find yet another abyss waiting for me. It’s easy enough to say on an outline that the main character stays with “a family,” or goes to a party with her “friends,” or any number of other vague groups of people that may actually be a huge part of the story. But how do you actually go about developing those characters?
If they’re not in the habit of just coming to you, then you have to go looking for them with some of the same haphazard techniques that I suggested in Monday’s post.
First, determine the general groups or roles of these characters. If your character is journeying with a team, figure out the basic functions for each character—why are they on this “team”? If your character is attending a school, you know you’ll need other students (friends and bullies), teachers, maybe a bus driver, etc.
Second, look for any interesting relationships. If you can’t think of individuals for your vague “team,” consider couples or siblings or rivals who might flesh out the team with life and conflict and backstory. Start with your main character and branch outward—what kind of character might they befriend? Who might they clash with? You can start with love interest, best friend, bully or rival, but try to think outside the box, too. Challenge stereotypes or obvious dynamics; think of how relationships might start out one way and grow into something else.
Third and finally, just start thinking up random characters who might be interesting. Challenge yourself to consider diversity in race, sexuality, and background (and species, if applicable). Consider different occupations and what personality types they might attract—and who might be an unusual, and thus more interesting, fit. Use the roles you determined in the first step to consider what personality type might be the expected, the cliché, as well as the original or strange. Always question what might be interesting, what might lead to conflict, and where characters can interact.
One cautionary point: don’t feel like you have to represent every single type of character or personality in a single story. This is a trap I often fall into, when a few interesting characters is a vast improvement over a muddled and crowded cast. Also, don’t sweat too much about repetition of personality traits, especially for minor characters—if you have a grasp of their personality, a minor role that gets one line will shine better, and as long as there are a few key differences in overall traits, the reader won’t notice the similarity.
Lastly, it’s always just a first draft. Names can change, characters can change, everything can change. Do what you can in the development stage to challenge yourself, but don’t get too caught up in perfection. Your characters will come to life as you write them, and they’ll live forever as you revise them.
So have fun! The abyss can be as much an opportunity as a challenge.