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.
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* 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.
Characters are one of the defining features that make a novel memorable, and help it stand out from others in the same genre.
As writers, we need to capture the reader’s attention, engage their emotions, and hook them into the tale. We need to create a protagonist that one can emphasize with, or at the very least, feel a connection to.
Do they need to be likeable? No!
Do they need to feel real? Yes!
We will work our way through a series of blog posts on how one can create a character, flesh them out, and bring them to life on the page. One important thing to note though, is the Iceberg Principal. Essentially, whilst you – as the writer – needs to know as much about the character as you feasibly can, the reader only needs to see what is relevant to the story – the tip of the iceberg.
We will begin with names. Now, you may like to leave the naming of your character until you know them a little better, in which case, refer back to this post at a later date, but I think we can all agree that, in most stories*, names are important. And names are more than just “something to call your character by”.
Names can also indicate:
- Social status
There are numerous things to consider when choosing names for your characters, and these will vary according to genre. For a historical novel, for example, you will wish to choose names relevant or typical to that period, a modern name or non-traditional spelling will really stand out. Also, many readers will make a subconscious connection between a name and personality; this can be fun to play with – for example, we have Bill the vampire in the Sookie Stackhouse series – but certain names will generally have specific connotations. This may, of course, vary depending on who is reading the book, and is culture dependent.
There are numerous resources for names, here are a few:
- baby name books: These generally contain the name’s origin and meaning, and thus can be used to subtly reference the character’s personality.
- baby name websites: as above, only digital.
- people you know, or names you overhear. Carry a notebook, note them down. (Be wary of using the names of friends or family though, as they may grow suspicious of your character’s origin).
- the phone book: great for surnames!
- name generator websites: Google it, there are hundreds!
If you are wanting non-traditional names, say for example you are writing speculative fiction, or for non-human characters, then you can have some fun creating your own names:
- portmanteaus are always fun: Sunstar, Rainflower, Goldenleaf.
- look into nature: plants, animals, and minerals often have appealing names that can say a lot about a character (Hemlock for example, is not likely to be someone cute and cuddly).
- colours: ie: Cerulean, Cyan, Magenta, Scarlet, Sable.
- mythology and folklore
- combine together pleasantly sounding syllables (I’d recommend no more than 3 syllables).
Make sure you say your character’s name out loud, to make sure that it doesn’t clash with the character’s intended personality (Annaki, for example, is likely to cause chaos). If you are writing a multi-racial specfic adventure, you will find it extremely helpful to base each different race’s naming patterns on the same distinct origin. That way the reader will be able to immediately determine if they’re a dwarf, an elf, or a specific alien species. Consistency is important.
Some things to look out for:
- character names all beginning with the same letter: this isn’t too confusing but can look lazy.
- similar sounding names: you probably don’t want a Raina and a Riana in your story. Either you or the reader will get the two confused!
- characters with the same name: this is fairly common in real life, but in stories it’s best avoided to prevent confusion.
- unpronounceable or long, complex names. For both the reader’s sake and yours – since you will probably mis-spell them at least once – I’d recommend keeping these to a minimum, or for peripheral characters.
- avoid subconsciously using the name of someone famous or infamous, or someone else’s character. Google it first!
It can be very useful to create lists of names, especially if you are writing in a world with specific naming technique (ie: all from the same cultural origin), so when you need to give the name of a peripheral character you can refer to the list, rather than spend 20 minutes trying to find something appropriate, which will stall your writing.
* there are always exceptions to the rule: in a first-person narrative one can fairly easily avoid ever naming the main protagonist, and you are unlikely to use them in a second-person narrative, and there are of course several famous authors that have never given their characters a unique moniker (ie: The Road by Cormac McCarthy). But you’ll generally find it easier if you have something to call your characters, trust me.