There is a strong chance that your character will have a life before their story starts. She* will have hobbies, passions, and fill a specific role, or niche, in society. In all likelihood, she will have an occupation, or some way in which she spends her regular, mundane, pre-story day. Under the typical narrative structure, the plot will begin with her living that normal** life, before the occurrence of the inciting incident that will set her on her journey through the plot.
There are some factors to take into consideration when deciding how your character would spend her pre-story days:
1. Intended Audience/Genre
Readers wish to identify with the characters, and although we may read diversely, there is a general trend to write characters that bear some similarity to their readers. This is especially prevalent in children and young adult literature – how many children’s books can you name where the protagonist is an adult?
Therefore, when writing for children, your characters will likely be children themselves. A lot of children’s books are set in school (ie: Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Captain Underpants) and even the fantastical ones generally have them learning their skills from a mentor or tutor (ie: Ranger’s Apprentice, Spirit Animals).
Obviously genre will also determine the role your character plays in society. In science fiction, engineers and linguists might be more prevalent than retail clerks or telephone operators. In fantasy, wizards and knights may prevail over accountants and IT consultants. Of course, it’s also fun to break from tradition and do something fresh and original too (just look at Terry Pratchett).
2. Write What You Know
There is, I suspect, a reason why many characters in adult fiction work in bookstores, are authors, journalists, editors or otherwise feature somewhere in the publishing industry; it requires less research for the author if their protagonist’s occupation is something intrinsically familiar to them. Here’s where extra-curriculum study is useful, and a previously unused degree could come in handy.
Whilst there’s absolutely nothing wrong with giving your character an occupation you are entirely unfamiliar with, bear in mind that you should engage in indepth research, because if you put in inaccurate facts, someone will know – and reviewers are not kind. You can, perhaps, get away with a little more improvisation in fantasy (especially if your character is a wizard) or space opera. Still, tread wary.
3. What does your story need?
This is probably the most important one to consider. Your character will face many trials throughout the plot and may require specialist skills to face them. Whilst a protagonist can never be a Jack-of-all-trades, they should have at least one core level of expertise that can justify them being the main character.
Think about what your story needs: does your main character need to hack computers? Will they be called upon to heal another character? Will strenuous physical activity be required? This doesn’t need to relate specifically to the character’s occupation, she could have attended a first aid course for work. Think creatively too: need someone with physical agility or endurance? Maybe she could be a soccer player or a cheerleader.
In a fantastical setting, she may be required to ride horses, hunt or forage for food, or survive in a hostile environment. Giving her a rural background may make this easier, but there is a certain charm in her being of noble blood, and thus forced into a situation where she is entirely out of her depth.
4. Break the stereotypes
Alternately, you can approach this from the exact opposite direction. Who would be the least expected to face the challenges of the plot? After all, we’ve had a perky cheerleader that fights supernatural monsters, and there are numerous middle-aged women (with no police training) who regularly solve mysteries. So, who’s to say that an accountant cannot save the world from the alien invasion? Or an elderly lady should not fall in love with a rock star?
No-one. So if you want to write it, write it!
5. Who will the plot impact the most?
There are some people that are more likely to be in a direct line of fire from the threat you’re about to unleash. Let’s say, for example, you want to write a story about monsters creeping into the world, possibly through the sewage system. Who is likely to notice this first? Home owners, perhaps, who will call in a plumber to investigate the situation. Supernatural events occurring after dark? What sort of people are likely to be out in the wee small hours? Street sweepers, criminals, someone sneaking home after an illicit tryst. A ‘flu virus has mutated and will begin the next pandemic? A doctor or nurse, or perhaps a laboratory technician or intern, could be the first to make the connection.
6. Give your character a talent or passion
Giving your character hobbies, talents, or interests, or something they are passionate about, all help the reader to connect with your character. These may not necessarily have a powerful impact on the plot, but they will more help cement the character as a “real” person. They can also be used to help the plot in small but subtle ways, both to the character’s benefit or to their downfall.
However, be wary of making your character’s passion so powerful that it distracts from the plot. If she must examine and identify every flower that she comes across, the reader’s interest may begin to wander. She need only identify the ones which can be used later in the story (ie: working out who had the means to poison the bishop), or a couple of others as “red herrings”.
Hopefully these suggestions have given you a goodly basis on where your character may begin. In the next few weeks we will look into personality, family, and the way your character relates to people around them.
If you have any suggestions or feedback for this blog, please let us know in the comments below.
~ * ~
* or he, or they, or whatever pronoun you have selected for your protagonist.
** even novels set in alternate, or dystopic, worlds tend to start with the character in a relative status quo-type situation. It may not be “normal” to us – but it is normal to them.