Step 5: Pick your Main Characters
It might seem strange that it took so long to talk about the characters, after all, you already thought up rough characters when you came up with your Core Premise for your story. However, until everything from Genre to Theme was in place, you weren’t ready to actually sit down and make your lead characters because the characters of a story are influenced by all of the things that we’ve covered so far, and each step has made the characters you will create more focused and solid in your imagination. This is important because characters aren’t real people but are parts of the story which are guided by the premise, ideas and theme like everything else.
Let’s look at the four types of characters you find in every story.
The most important character in your story is your main character (sometimes also called the hero or protagonist), who is going to be the heart of your story. They’re the viewpoint from which the story is being told, and the reader’s guide to the events which play out.
Main characters are also the trickiest part of the story to create, because they have to achieve the right balance of being unique while still being relatable to the audience. If the main character is too unique, the audience won’t be able to connect and empathize with them because they’re too different, but if the main character isn’t at least a little unique they won’t stand out in the minds of the reader.
The simplest solution to this is not to detail your main character too much, but instead make them special in a few important ways while leaving the rest unknown or vague so the audience’s own imaginations can fill in the details and make them their own. This is one of the key skills of storytelling- giving the audience just enough to make a picture in their minds, but not filling in the details so that each person can make their own mental picture.
With this in mind, here’s the top ten things to know about your story’s main character:
- Basic biographical information– age, sex, height, weight, hair color(s), job, family members, close friends, education, skills, work history, hobbies.
- Which of the Big Five Personality Traits is their weakest and which one is their strongest? Are they an Extrovert who likes spending time with other people? Do they care about other people? Are they well organized? Are they emotional? Are they open to new experiences and ideas?
- What are they best at and what are they worst at? Characters are often defined by their flaws more than their strengths, so make sure your character is bad at something for everything they’re good at.
- What are the first things people notice about this character when they meet them? Appearance, style of dress, style of grooming, manner of speech, body language, etc.
- What are two Paradoxes about them? This is a fast way to make characters unique in the minds of readers- give them two things that seem to contradict each other in the minds of the reader. This is an easy way to add depth and interest to the character. For example, they’re big and strong but very timid, they’re a leader who is afraid of talking to people, they dress very conservatively but wear a brightly colored watch, or their personality changes when they’re in a different environment. (Home/work/school.)
- What is going to make the audience like or dislike this character? What about this character is going to make the audience connect with and care about the character? Or, on the other hand, what will make them dislike and reject the character? How will you make that connection with the audience?
- What is their overall life goal? What, if anything, do they want to achieve in their life? What would be a perfect life for this character? What would they be willing to do to get it?
- What is their goal in this story? A character’s story goals generally come down to one of three things: attain, maintain, or lose. They want to get something they don’t have. They want to keep something they’ve got. Or, they want to get rid of something they have. This isn’t just physical things, it can be anything- objects, people, habits, money, knowledge, love, courage, safety, security, freedom, spirituality, and so on.
- What is their motivation in this story? Why are they trying to achieve the goal in the story? What reasons are getting them off the couch and keeping them from running away? Why do they endure or try to escape? What keeps them from giving up and just being a victim?
- How does this character connect with the main theme of the story? This is last, but one of the most important things to know- how does the main character reflect the theme of the story? Are they a weak person who learns to be strong? Are they a strong person who inspires others to be strong? Are they are trying to change the world or restore the peace? How does the character represent the life lesson the writer wants the reader to know?
You should be able to fit the above on one or two pages of notes at most, anything more and the character is probably getting too detailed and may be harder for the audience to connect to. If you’re an artist, feel free to sketch the character as well and think about their emotions and how they’d react to things. Other details will probably appear as you tell the character’s story, and that’s fine, just add them to the list as they come up.
One final thought on main characters- like all characters in a story, the main character is a reflection of the writer, but only a reflection. They are not you, and you shouldn’t think of them as being you, but more like your children who you are going to horribly abuse to teach a lesson to. Don’t be afraid to let them grow and become different and unique people if that’s what the story calls for, and let them have their own ways of doing things. When you first start writing, it’s fine for your main characters to act and think like you do, but it’s important over time to learn to separate yourself from them and let them have their own voice. It’s something that will usually happen naturally as you write, but it’s important to be aware of because some people have trouble separating themselves from their characters, and this can lead to making Mary-Sues if you’re not careful.
The second most important character in a story is the opponent, also called the antagonist, the rival, or sometimes the villain. In many ways, the term Opponent is better than those terms, however, because almost all of them make you think of a character who is evil or hates the main character. While this is often true, this isn’t true all of the time, and in fact you can have an Opponent who has no feelings about the main character at all, or is actually the main character’s best friend or even lover. The single thing that makes an Opponent an Opponent is that they’re standing in the way of the main character trying to achieve their goal. As long as a thinking character is preventing the main character from reaching their goal for whatever reason, they’re an opponent.
So, for example, if a young child wants their mother to buy them a toy, the mother is the child’s opponent. If a character is trying to survive a night in a haunted house, the resident ghosts or monsters trying to kill him are his opponents. If a woman is trying to convince a politician to give up a proposed new law, the politician is the woman’s opponent. If a man is trying to convince a reluctant girlfriend to marry him, she is his opponent.
A story can also have different kinds of Opponents- usually there is a Main Opponent, who is the one that the character must overcome to achieve their main story goal. However, there can also be Minor Opponents, who stand in the way of the character achieving their story goal, but affect the character’s story in less important ways. For example, if a teen character was trying to sneak out of school, the school security guard might be their main opponent, but they’d also have to convince their teacher to let them out of class (minor opponent) and bribe a rival student not to turn them in (minor opponent). The story ends when they get past the security guard and achieve their goal of escaping the school, but they had to deal with the other opponents too.
The other important thing to know about Opponents is that they too reflect the theme of the story, and often represent the opposing ideas that someone who doesn’t agree with the theme would say. So, for example, if a story was about a character learning to be brave, their opponents would all represent reasons for the character not to be brave and the character’s own fears. If a story is about how slavery is bad and corrupts people, the main opponent will be someone who thinks slavery is the natural order of things and important to society. By taking the opposite position on the theme of the story, the opponent is naturally drawn into conflict with the main character and vice-versa, creating at battle which reflects the theme of the story.
With this in mind, creating a main opponent follows the same process as creating the main character. Use the above list of the top 10 things you need to know about the main character to build the main opponent as well. For Minor Opponents, you might not want to use the full list, but just focus on numbers 1,4,5,6,8,10. You really just need to know how they connect with theme, how they look, and what they’re trying to do in the story.
Also remember that if you want the audience to hate or dislike the opponent, make sure as quickly as possible after the opponent is introduced you have them do or say something that the audience won’t like. It’s very common for movie villains to kill someone or do something bad in their first scene for this reason- it tells the audience that this person is evil and a threat to the hero. If you want the audience to be more sympathetic toward the opponent, have them do something disagreeable, but understandable in their first appearance. In other words, show them doing the right thing in the wrong way, or do both right and wrong things, which makes the audience curious about them as a person as it shows there is complexity or depth there. In any case, always introduce your main opponent in the story as early as possible so the audience knows what kind of situation the main character is facing.
One final note- There can be stories where there are no opponents of any kind, and the character is trying to overcome something to reach their goal instead of trying to overcome someone. For example, a story where a character is trying to survive in the arctic, or earn money to pay for a gift. In these stories, usually the actual opponent is the setting or world the character lives in, or some part of it. Sometimes the character themselves can even be their own opponent, in which case the character must overcome some personal weakness or flaw to achieve their goal. As a rule, the easiest stories to write, however, are the ones where there is a thinking opponent as it gives the main character someone else to interact with and creates more drama.
Supporting characters are made much the same as minor antagonists, whether they’re the mentors, friends, parents, lovers, co-workers, or any other kind of character that round out the main character’s life. You just need to tell the audience their names, what they look like, give them a distinctive feature and something to do in the story, and you’re good to go.
Generally supporting characters tend to play one or more of six roles in a story:
- Ally– This is usually the “best friend” character who is there to cheer the character on and keep them in the story. They get the character to talk so that the audience can hear the character’s thoughts and they often help to direct the character to think in ways connected to the story by asking questions.
- Motivator– This is a character who helps to keep the story going by motivating the character to act and pursue their goal. Sometimes this character IS the goal, in the case of the Love Interest, and sometimes they’re a boss who tells the character what to do, or a child who gets kidnapped by a monster the character has to rescue. Whoever they are, they help to make the story move and keep the main character from sitting on their butt.
- Resource– This is the character that provides the main character (and audience) with the information they need to understand what’s happening and keep the main character in play. It can also be the character that provides the main character with the things they need in the story to do what they need to do. This can be the teacher or mentor, the brainy best friend, the starship’s science officer, the gunsmith, the gadgeteer or the mysterious supplier of magical spells. Someone has to supply the character with what they need and need to know.
- Innocent– This is a character that the main character needs to teach something to, or help to develop in some way. Most often this type of character pops up in stories where the main character is a larger than life figure who changes the world by showing the right way to live and exemplifying the theme of the story. In those stories, the Innocent is the one learning the truth of the story’s theme from the main character, who already knows and lives that truth every day. Sometimes this character acts as a motivator, but they’re more than that, they’re often the audience’s surrogate when the main character is too unique to be relatable.
- Catalyst– This character serves to change the main character’s life by becoming part of it. This can be the new kid in class, a new love, a person in need of help or anyone else who transforms the main character’s life just by walking in the door. They’re the cause of the character’s world turning upside down, and usually enter the story right at the beginning to kick the whole thing off. Sometimes they are the motivator of the story, but sometimes they’re the spark that sets off an inferno, either way, they’re bringers of change.
- Comic Relief– If a story is dark or tense, sometimes there needs to be a little sunshine and lighter moments to help balance things out. In that case, someone has to be there to make the jokes that lets the tension drop a bit or make the characters (and audience) chuckle. Serious main characters need someone who isn’t so serious to balance them out and keep the tone lighter, and sometimes the funny character delivers the lessons of the story in the most entertaining ways.
Often supporting characters play more than one of these roles, and one person can even be all six of the roles in a story! These roles can also shift around between stories as characters change and develop between multiple stories or books, but whatever roles the characters play they should stick with those roles within a single story once they’re introduced to the audience as playing that role. If they do change roles, there should be a good reason for it within the story and it shouldn’t happen out of the blue. (The best friend shouldn’t suddenly turn out to be rich at the end of the story when the character needs money unless it was hinted at or established earlier in the story.)
These are the characters that fill out the rest of the story but who don’t play any of the above roles except maybe for a scene or two at most. These the nameless family members and classmates, the redshirts, the merchants, the tavern servers, the fellow pilots and the collateral damage victims. The people who might have a few colorful lines, or are there to give a limited viewpoint or perspective on a scene or event that can’t be given another way. The Extras, the NPCs, the… well, you get the point.
Generally, there’s not much to say about these folks, except that the writer should remember that they serve as representatives of the setting. They are the living embodiments of the world the character lives in, and so every one of them tells the audience lots of information about the world and the major characters’ place in it. They will often set the tone of the story, act as minor foils to let us know more about the main characters As someone once said, “your true nature comes out when you’re with the people you don’t have to be nice to.”), and add color to the world they inhabit.
From a writer’s perspective, it’s generally best to limit these characters to archetypes and not to spend too much time of them. If they’re a police officer, then have them act like a typical police officer for their situation, and don’t slow the story down telling the audience their life story. That is, unless they’re a corrupt police officer and are there to show that the police in that setting are corrupt, in which case they should act like a corrupt police officer to show the audience the current nature of the organization they represent. Only give them the detail they need to fill their roles, and then let them do their jobs.
As a general rule of thumb, you should have the minimum number of characters in a story that you can get away with for the story you want to tell. Every character should be there for a reason, and look for opportunities to combine two or more characters into a single person to avoid larger casts. There are two very good reasons for this: 1) the more names, the more chances there are for the audience to get confused, and 2) the more active characters with goals, the longer the story is going to need to be to develop them as characters and tell their stories.
Try to keep all supporting casts under five characters (including opponents) per main character per story, not including characters who only appear in a single scene or are background characters. This will keep you from having too many characters to deal with and running into trouble trying to keep track of them all. It is generally recommended that most short stories have at least a main character, a single ally (for the main character to talk to), and a single opponent.
So, with all this in mind, fill out the worksheet profile for your main character, main opponent, and then any other characters that are important to the story in as much detail as needed. Now let’s brainstorm some scenes and situations!