One of the things I learned early on in my novel writing was that you must have fully formed multi-dimensional characters. I wondered what this actually meant and after reading around and talking to other writers I realised that the characters (at least the main ones) must come to the page with an agenda, motivation, likes, dislikes and tons of personality.
Of course, you cannot bore readers to death with masses of personal history, but what you can do is compile a character sheet with all the personal traits you want the character to have – as recommended by many a ‘how to write’ author… But wait… That still didn’t feel quite right to me. How can a simple list of likes, dislikes make a person? The answer is they don’t!
But I made my lists anyway and then a curious thing happened… I found myself wondering ‘why’ this character would like this and ‘why’ did they hate that? I started writing more (on my character sheet) about the character’s childhood, upbringing, status in life and what brought them to this point in their existence. Suddenly I had a story character with formidable motivation who felt real – great! But it did not exactly fit the plot I had in mind. What to do? I changed the plot.
I did this with other characters too – especially the antagonist – trying to go against the main traits I had in my protagonist. Voila – I had inbuilt conflict. When I finished doing all the character sheets I realised I had stacks of back story which I could draw on at any point in my story without going into information and descriptive overload.
I have to say this method of drawing up extensive back story really worked for me and I think my stories benefitted enormously from my knowing what motivated the characters. Most of this work never saw the light of day, of course, but it helped me to have it in my mind that a certain person would react/behave in a certain way because they were pre-programmed by fate, upbringing and circumstance. I like to think my characters ‘came to life on the page’ – tried and trusted cliché I know… Sorry.
So now, when I am trying to put a story together, I start with the germ of an idea and then go onto character pretty quickly so I can write their history and what makes them the person/character that they are. It generally results in a well-rounded, believable plot too. At least that’s what I like to think…