The Art of Character Building—The Chicken or The Egg

By Jordan Dane

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? And why should we care as long as there’s omelets and Kentucky Fried? As you can see, I love talking in dead pan earnest about the philosophy of writing.

Many people debate whether characters come first or plot. Or they debate the merits of a story based on whether it’s a plot driven one or a character driven story. A better question might be—who are these people and why do ‘they’ travel in packs?

Let’s cut to the chase and talk about me. I tend to write with a melding of the two—plot AND character. Both aspects are critical to me. Sometimes the characters come at me first, but generally, I consider both to be fundamental to storytelling. They tend to gang up on me together—merciless and persistent attacks. And once you get thumped upside the head, can real learning be far behind?

To break down the process, I offer the following ideas to get you started. Think about the story you want to tell—the characters, plot, and setting. Conjure the basics in your head and work toward convincing yourself this story will be worth your time to write. Are these characters worth getting to know—to discover? As an author, you will spend time with all these elements. Are they enough to sustain you through the many hours you will invest in a project?

Where can I get ideas for characters or for a plot?
I keep a file of potential story ideas or characters. I often thought it would be fun to set up a dart board with various types of characters, traits, and key plot ideas, then toss a dart to see what challenge I could devise for myself. Fortunately, I can’t hit the side of a barn with a Bazooka, but I haven’t given up on the notion. I’m sure there are many other ways to conjure ideas, but the following are where I get most of mine:

  • Classic stories or fables
  • Real life people that we know personally or see in the news that capture our imagination
  • Newspapers & magazines
  • TV & movies
  • Any teenager within arm’s reach

How can I get started? The question `what if’ is a powerful one for writers when they are devising plots and characters.

  • What if I was a well-respected doctor with a life worth living in an upscale neighborhood before a one armed man killed my spouse and framed me in the process? (The Fugitive)
  • What if I’m a cop on vacation visiting my estranged spouse and arrive late to his/her company Christmas party at the same time a savage terrorist locks down the building and takes the party-goers hostage? (Die Hard)

As you can see from the `what if’ scenarios above, the plot is intriguing, but made even more fascinating when you add a character with a lot to lose. The doctor who thinks his life is everything it should be loses it all in one fatal instant and must become a fugitive to find the truth and clear his name. And a relentless cop stands to lose the only woman he’s ever loved unless he becomes a one-man wrecking crew against an organized villain with plenty of resources. The bad guys are complex and formidable, making the conflict irresistible.

Formulate an idea of the `big ticket’ plot points in your story, including the black moment for the hero/heroine when all seems lost. Then devise who is best to tell that story. From your cast of characters, primary and secondary, who will reveal your plot and be your main storyteller? Generally, that would be your hero or heroine—the person with the most to lose perhaps. (I say generally because I don’t want to limit you from turning a plot on its ear and tell it from the perspective of the villain, for example.) Once you’ve got your ideas, it’s time to build upon and add depth to your characters.

Character Building
What does your character want and why can’t they have it? Conflict is vital to creating memorable characters. No conflict(s), no story. Your external conflict might be the villain or the insurmountable situation, but the most unforgettable characters will also contend with their own flaws or biases (internal conflicts), so they have a journey toward self-discovery. Perfect characters are boring!! Give your characters depth by forcing them to battle internal AND external conflicts.

Find your characters’ greatest weaknesses or fears—their internal conflicts—then demand they deal with it, rub their noses in it. Rubbing their nose in it generally comes from the influences of the external conflict—the plot. The one-two punch of the external and internal conflicts adds depth to your character. Make him/her suffer, then keep ramping up the stakes and the tension.

Getting to Know the Character(s) You Create
I’ve seen authors use a template of character facts and traits to set the facets of the main characters in their mind’s eye. When I was first starting out, I found this practice helpful, although I did not find a good example of a template that worked for me in its entirety. So I’d say create one for yourself if you like this type of structure.

How does this work? I’m a visual learner, so creating these types of notes on my cast of characters can be useful to immerse myself into the world I will be creating. The subconscious brain retains much more than the conscious mind can recall. This process can set the foundation, allow you to absorb the details so your brain will run on autopilot once you begin to write. You can still learn or discover your characters as you go, but I found certain aspects of my characters become ingrained in my mind beforehand by using this questionnaire method.

The template might cover the facts of someone’s life, such as:

  • Where do they live?
  • What work do they do? How much money do they make doing it?
  • Who are their friends?
  • Who are the people most influential in their lives?
  • What habits do they have?
  • What are their physical attributes?
  • How do they dress?
  • Where did they go to school—their educational level?
  • What’s in their wallet or purse?
  • What type of car do they drive?

Although the above questions are important, the most memorable characters come from the questions below.

Other questions that add depth to the characterization:

  • What matters most to them?
  • What would they die for?
  • How do they deal with confrontation?
  • What makes them vulnerable? What are their flaws and biases?
  • What are their strengths?
  • What’s the one thing they would never do? (Of course, you’d make them do it in your plot.)
  • What ethics do they have? Are they willing to bend them?

Another fun thing I do to reinforce characters in my mind is to create a photo board of images or the lifestyle/setting for my characters. When I’m writing them, I have these images to look at. I may also be inspired by certain music. On the day I plan to write, I may listen to that music. Strange, but when you’re channeling characters, anything goes.

In closing, when you are contemplating who your character will be, ask yourself what would set them apart from other characters in the genre you’re writing. A cliched 2-dimensional character will never survive the crushing weight of an editor’s slush pile. Become an observer in life and of people. Study what makes someone or something compelling then write the unforgettable story you’ve always wanted to tell.

Recommended Reading: 
Goal, Motivation, & Conflict (GMC) – The Building Blocks of Good Fiction by author Debra Dixon (ISBN 0-9654371-0-8)

© Jordan Dane, 2007