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Create a character your readers will never forget

Right after a coherent, exciting (or at least interesting) plot, the next thing a story or novel needs is characters. A whole cast of performers, fresh from the writer's imagination. You must create a character to fill each role — think of it as casting a play or a movie.

Let's assume you have your plot nailed down tight. For the moment, we'll take it as read that you have the beginning, middle and end, and you know (with at least some certainty) where the story line actually starts.

One point you can be sure of: the story will start with a scene, and almost every scene involves humans playing their part in putting flesh onto the bones of the story. (Notice ... almost every scene involves characters! There will always be scenes where a major event like a massive storm, a rocket launch, a ship sinking, will command the entire narrative. But in fiction these scenes will be a few percent of the overall number of scenes in your book. It's all about "Show, don't tell," and to see how it works, and why it works, see the sidebar to your right!

It's time to create a character ... or twenty characters. And here's how to do it ...

Character creation 101

Sometimes you'll have the characters clearly in mind even before you've nailed down the plot. They spring into your imagination fully formed, and literally demand that you tell their story. Some writers are lucky enough to have this happen every time ... the rest of us have to work to create a character, real, live, fleshed out and detailed in three dimensions.

Let's assume that, because you're on this page, you'll have to work at it. This actually gives you a big advantage, because character creation is a skill which can be mastered right here. The writers to whom it comes naturally are 'playing by ear,' and the downside of that is, if or when a day arrives when they get burned out or 'blocked,' they never did learn the basic skills. They have nothing to fall back on ... but you do! When you how to create a character according to a set of ground rules, you can always 'return to source.' These are life-long skills. So...

To create a character, first, look at the part of the plot and make some decisions.

    What's the best way to 'show' the plot, not 'tell' it?
    Upon whose shoulders will most of the plot line be carried?
    Who complicates the plot line?
    Who hurts the hero or heroin the most?
    Who causes the most mayhem, and why?
    Who does the central character care about?
    Who does s/he hate? Love?
    Who's going to get killed, and why?

With these questions answered, you can put up an 'auditions in progress' notice, and this is where the most fun in a writer's day begins. You get to cast the parts. (If highbrow writers try to tell you they don't work this way ... yeah, right. They might be telling the truth. Maybe.) To create a character, however, think about physical/intellectual characteristics first, looks second.

Auditioning for the hero, examine what you need this poor guy to do. Fly the plane? Drive like a Formula One champion? Crack the secret code? Understand chemistry and physics? Fight like Jet Li? Swim and run like Tarzan? Ride a bike like Lance Armstrong? Play the violin? Make a parachute jump? Fix engines? Perform an autopsy? Setting out to create a character from scratch, consider what you need him/her to do, and this will efficiently set out the academic and athletic background s/he needs to come from

You need to 'cast' a type which is capable of performing what's necessary. If you mis-cast the part in the first chapters, when a meek, mild academic grabs the machine pistol and jumps out of the aircraft without a parachute, catches the bad guy, rips the chute off him, blows up the chemical plant, mows down an army of terrorists and saves his girlfriend ... your readers won't believe a word of it. From the get-go, you must create a character readers can believe.

Similarly, if you 'cast' a sports hero type who later in the book starts deciphering astrophysics and chemistry, curing alien diseases and saving the day with his revolutionary 'take' on calculus, the story will have spoofed itself. If the guy needs a doctorate in physics to save the day at the end, design it into the plan, the moment you set out to create a character readers will believe utterly.

So, think it through and cast the parts carefully. This will save a lot of rewriting later.

When you invest the time and effort to create a character properly, there's a lot more to think about than what he can do and what he looks like. Do you recall this exercise from the plot idea page? (Page back and refresh your memory if you need to.) By going through a kind of questionnaire, a hero, shero, villain, coward, nuisance ... any kind of performer can be built up, layer by layer. Let's take a look...

Turn page to Create a character: The Hero...

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