After I've spent time thinking about my story and loosely pinning scenes onto the three act structure + beat sheet, I try to get a sense just through my imagining, what the main character looks like. I nail down the basics: height, weight, hair. Then I give her (him) a name. This is subject to change as I get to know her and what the story demands. In fact, all my first assumptions about my characters are subject to change (and they usually do).
I know a lot of people will do character study lists at this point, including deep emotional questions like what's their biggest fear, what's their favorite food, etc, and it works for them, but for me, I can't do this up front. These kinds of deeper questions are answered in the writing of the story so I like to do those deeper lists on the second draft.
Characters need to change as the story progresses.
Once I've established the main character, it's time to determine the Character Arc.
All lead characters should have some kind of arc.
Rachel in THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN can’t be the same person at the end of the book that she was at the beginning. All the conflicts and crises she goes through in the story must bring change to her character. This happens gradually over the course of the book. By the end, Rachel sees herself much differently. She’s given up drinking and her obsession with her ex-husband.
I try to nail down the basic character traits and the arc path before I start writing. Sometimes these are revealed as I write. Or at least, become clearer. This is something you should do with all the major and prominent secondary characters. For instance, Marlow from GINGERBREAD MAN has a big arc. He moves from being lazy and worried about never having had a girlfriend to someone who uses his intelligence to solve a crime and risks his life to save someone he doesn’t even know that well.
There are a couple of primal human issues to look at that will help you build your character arc: their felt need and their flaw.
Before we can get to get started on the first draft, you have to get a sense of who your main character is. Not just what he or she looks like and where they live or what they do, but what's going on inside. This is what I call Felt Need.
What do I mean by felt need? Some people might call it the character's motivation, but I think it goes deeper than that. For instance, a character may be motivated to do his father's bidding because if he doesn't he'll get a beating. He obeys to prevent something harsh from happening. He's motivated to please his father to preserve himself. His felt need goes beyond motivation: his felt need in this situation may be to be accepted by his father. What he really wants is unconditional love. This felt need drives the character not only in how he acts and reacts, but in how he feels.
For instance, in THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, I would say Rachel’s felt need is to gain control of her life. On every level—relationships, job, health—she’s out of control. Everything she does, even drinking is a desperate attempt to gain control.
Felt need doesn't eliminate character motivation—it enhances it. Motivation drives a character's action, felt need drives action and emotion.
Felt needs are pretty basic to humanity and you'll find that there's a short list of needs that really drive people. The need for acceptance, to be normal, to belong, to be loved unconditionally, to prove oneself, the desire for justice, to be safe, or to find something like a loved one or the truth.
What is Harry Potter's felt need? It is not to prove himself. He's trying to get by without any undue attention. He also found his way to belonging at Hogwarts, so it’s not a need for acceptance. I'd say his felt need is to be normal, something he'll never achieve.
Katniss Everdeen's felt need in HUNGER GAMES is to provide for and protect her family. She stepped into her father's role after he died and her mother collapsed emotionally. Everything she does (or doesn't do) is a result of this felt need.
Do you know your main character's felt need?
Once you've determined your character's felt need, everything they do or think will be linked to that. This will help you form your character arc. Make sure they change. This is not only true for your protagonist, but often for some of your secondary characters and possibly the antagonist as well.
Your character's flaw drives the story. Did I just say that? Yes, I did. Here it is again with emphasis: your character's flaw drives the story.
What do I mean by that?
First off, perfect characters aren't interesting. They're not relatable. Everyone has a flaw, more than one usually, but at least one. It's their blind spot. Their main flaw will dictate how they react in stressful situations (and your character better be in a lot of stressful situations!) It dictates how they see themselves and how they relate to others. It's the gradual awareness of this flaw that helps them to eventually overcome the antagonists in your story (more on antagonists coming up). And, if all goes well, they will conquer the flaw by the last chapter (or at least tame it) for a nice happy ending.
HUNGER GAMES: Katniss's flaw is harder to discern on first look. She's a good friend, a good daughter, a good sister. She's even a good hunter. I'd say her flaw is her RELUCTANCE. She doesn't want to rock the boat, just quietly hunting for food, even if it means breaking a law or two. This flaw is challenged early on when her sister's name is picked at the reaping and her felt need kicks in – protect her family at all costs. The rest of the journey is about facing her reluctance to fight, to kill and ultimately to lead.
PERCEPTION: Zoe Vanderveen has glaring flaws. She's almost too unlikeable at the beginning (something you also have to be careful of). I had to give her some redeeming qualities early on to make up for it. Her glaring flaw is that she lacks self-awareness. Self-awareness is not the same thing as selfishness or being self-absorbed. Selfish people only think of themselves. People who lack self-awareness don't see themselves and their behavior as others do. They don't realize they're being offensive. But, even though there's no malicious intent, the offence still occurs! Zoe's arc is about an increasing awareness of who she is to other people, and her realization that she doesn't like what she sees.
If you write a character who has a lot of flaws, make sure to give them a redeeming factor to give balance.
Okay! I think we're ready to tackle the first draft!
*Photo via VisualHunt.com