I get a lot of questions on character development, so in my efforts to help my readers I came across a post from Jerry Jenkins.
According to Jenkins, these are the 10 steps that you should undertake if you’re looking to create a memorable hero. Think Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen. You want to create heart-stopping stories with characters that really reach out to us.
So, if you want to make a protagonist that your readers remember, these might be just the steps for you.
The 10 Steps to Creating a Memorable Character
Introduce her early. Introduce her by name.
A lot of new writers try to open up their stories with a lot of action and a lot of characters, but that’s a critical misstep according to Jenkins. You should consider it a rule that your character needs to be the first person on stage. What’s more, it should also be a rule that your reader can (immediately or very soon) recognize her / him by name.
When it comes to naming, though — don’t stress, says Mr. Jenkins. Just give yourself time to think and try to come up with something interesting and memorable, but not too quirky or outrageous.
Jenkins has even more great tips for naming, though.
When it comes to the allegorical, stick to telling names like Prudence, Truth or Pride. For standard novels, typical names will do and ethnicity is always important to keep in mind. Your goal is to connect the readers with your world and your characters and part of the way we do this is through names. Names can reveal a lot about a character, like personality, physical appearance, etc.
Give them a peek…
Not only do you need a clear picture of your main character in your mind’s eye — your readers do too! You don’t want to force your reader to imagine a certain picture, but you do want to give them some idea of your main character’s appearance.
Let them know about height, hair color, eye color. Let them know if your character has physical prowess or not. Think about descriptions that give your readers a basic idea but leave them enough space to imagine your characters as relatable elements in their world.
According to Jenkins, you should layer your physical descriptions through dialogue and during action, rather than making the descriptions a separate part of the narrative. Hint at just enough to trigger a mental image and then back off, letting your reader do the rest of the work.
If you’re still lost, here’s a few critical points to always remember to include in your character’s physical description:
– scars, piercings, tattoos, physical imperfections, deformities
– sound of the voice
Character’s still not sticking out from one another? Try giving your lead a unique gesture or mannerism that helps to set them apart from the other characters in your story.
Remember: If you don’t know your character, you can’t write your character, so spend enough time getting familiar with her. Her wants, needs, desires, etc. This will make your story more compelling, as it will move it along more organically.
Don’t forget the backstory.
When we say backstory, we mean everything that has happened to your character before chapter 1. Jenkins claims that when it comes to the backstory, the more detail is better. Writers should dig deep and really find the bottom of their character’s motivations through their history.
A good backstory should include elements like:
– When / where / and to whom your main character was born
– The names and ages of any siblings
– Where he grew up / attended school
– Political affiliations
– Skills and Talents
– Spiritual life & questioning
– Best friend
– Single, dating, married
– Personality type
– Anger triggers
– Joys and pleasures
Make her human…
Jenkins makes the point that even superheroes have flaws and weakness, and he’s right. Superman had kryptonite. The Green Lantern had issues with wood. Every one has a weakness and your main character is no different.
Having a lead without superhuman immunity to everything is impossibly to identify with, Jenkins says. Flaws make us human and those little flaws make us relate to characters and want to root for them. Flaws aren’t deal breakers, they’re truth nuggets.
When writing flaws, always keep in mind that they should be forgivable, understandable and identifiable. Don’t make your character irredeemable. There’s a very fine line between vulnerable and pathetic and if you cross it, you’ll have a character no one can root for.
But also make her a superhero.
Your main character doesn’t have to be Clark Kent, but you should imbue them with heroic potential, says Jenkins. Sure, you’re trying to make your character real and relatable, but they also need to give your reader something to aspire to, so they need to to at least have the potential to do great things.
Stories tell the journey of characters and on those journeys, they should experience changes that lead them to an ultimate revelation or heroic action. All the failures your character experiences along the way should help them improve on themselves and their situations and allow them to vanquish whatever foe you’ve given them.
Jenkins says, “He can have weakness for chocolates or a fear of snakes, but he must show up and face the music when the time comes.”
Remember: Extraordinary and relatable. Critical for the success of any hero.
Explore the inner as well as the outer.
Yeah, we are into the story for the physical action but we also need to see and understand what’s going on internally with our characters. Give your readers a sense of what’s going on in your hero’s head. What drives him?
Your characters need internal conflict. This forms inner dialogue and allows your protagonist to develop organically. Character Arcs are nothing new, but they are important and they are dependent on a solid internal conflict and resolution.
Jenkins goes on to instruct us that we should draw on details from the world around us. Think about the people that you know. What keeps them up at night? What are their blind spots? Do they have secrets? What do they find embarrassing? Is there a passion that drives them?
By having these kinds of conflicts are characters are driven forward and then — when they face the ultimate life or death situation — they respond accordingly.
Take on your character.
This isn’t just for method actors — it’s for writer’s too. Jenkins claims that one of the critical elements of writing a memorable character is getting into the mind of your character by embodying them.
If your character is entering a situation of mortal danger try to put yourself in her shoes and imagine what you would do if you were in the same predicament. Think back to the last time you were in danger and try to analyze how you removed yourself from the situation. What ran through your mind? Where where you? What was your body’s physical reaction?
There’s nothing like a personal experience to give you the details you need to make the difference in that scene.
Always keep your Character Arc in mind.
Your Character Arc is a bit like your “message” so you should always keep it in mind as your character transforms through the story.
The classic story structure today is pretty basic: main character gets into trouble, things escalate, this fosters growth in your character who changes from the beginning until the end when their trouble is resolved.
That’s the Character Arc!
According to Jenkins, a perfect character isn’t relatable or believable. But every reader can relate to a flawed character who overcomes obstacles in order to experience change.
Consider how your character responds to challenges and consider this when writing every scene. Every single scene in your story should add to your Character Arc in some way.
As always: show, don’t tell.
If writing is what you intend to do long term, get ready to hear this phrase over and over again: you need to show your readers, don’t tell them.
Trust your readers to do some of the work, says Jenkins. By trusting them to deduce characters qualities from what they see and hear, you are allowing them to invest themselves into your story.
Research, research, RESEARCH
Probably the second Cardinal rule in fiction is to write what you know. Now, this isn’t to say that you can’t write a science fiction novel if you’ve never been to space, but it is to say you should write outside the limits of general emotional experiences.
Jenkins makes the point that imagination can only take you so far, and he’s right. You might be able to write about a female character, but can you give her the truth depth of emotional intelligence and growth if you have not experienced that for your self in real life?
That’s where research comes in.
Research allows us, as writers, to put ourselves into many of the situations we are trying to immerse our readers in. Without researching the core elements of our stories, we leave ourselves vulnerable to the trap of stereotypes — and there is no sure fire way to alienate a reader faster than poorly used stereotypes that take away from your tale.
What are some of your favorite ways to develop your main characters? Do you use a mixture of the steps before, or have you discovered a whole new way to tackle the process all together? Let me know in the comments, or find me on Facebook and Twitter.