Image Credit: Images created in Book Brush using Pixabay photos.
Your lead character is the star of your story. Their actions are a result of needing something (to fulfil a quest is one example) but there are obstacles. This includes other characters who are not there to make life easy. Cause and consequence; conflict and resolution – these are the foundations of any story. Your lead character drives the action.
- Name the lead character in Pride and Prejudice.
- Name the lead character in A Christmas Carol.
- Name the lead character in The Lord of the Rings. (I know – it has a cast of seemingly hundreds but name the one character the story really cannot do without).
I’m sure you had no trouble answering those.
Answers: Elizabeth Bennet, Ebenezer Scrooge, and Frodo Baggins
Second Quiz Time
- Name the main opponent in Pride and Prejudice.
- Name the main opponent in A Christmas Carol.
- Name the main opponent in The Lord of the Rings.
You could argue this is trickier, there could be more than one answer, and you’d be right but I’m looking for the main opposition.
Answers: Caroline Bingley (as she’s the only serious rival to Elizabeth for Mr Darcy’s affection). Ebenezer Scrooge (look at how he tries to fight the need to be redeemed. A character can be their own worst enemy). And, last but not least, Sauron, the Dark Lord. (Saruman is a pain but the overwhelming enemy is Sauron as he is the one desperate to get the Ring of Power back and the one with the most to win or lose).
In all of these questions, you would have come up with the names of the characters immediately. So there is no question then about how important characters are.
Qualities of the Lead Character
I ask questions when drafting a story. Why does this character deserve to be written up? What is that character trying to get across to a reader? To be able to answer these, I need to know who my character is and what they are capable of under duress. During a story, the characters will be under duress as they overcome obstacles so I need to know likely reaction and capabilities.
I draw up a template to sketch these thoughts out. I don’t need to know every detail. I want to give room for my imagination to work as I draft the tale but I do need a “way in” to my story and my character’s major trait. So many things (including ideas for stories) can come from just knowing what that trait is.
If my character is honest, I can put them in a situation where they face the dilemma of sticking to their principles or telling a lie to help someone else or perhaps where they are being threatened if they don’t tell the lie, they’ll lose their job/partner etc. Already I’ve got a basic story outline.
The major trait I think about doesn’t necessarily need to be a “good” one. I can also reverse this procedure. What if my character lies every time they open their mouth? I can then put them in a situation where telling the truth is a life or death matter and have them face the dilemma of trying to make themselves believable.
Rooting for the Lead Character – or not
The lead character doesn’t need to be likeable though the reader should understand what they’re trying to achieve and why. A reader must have a reason for wanting to read on and wanting to find out what happens to the lead character is a major reason.
I prefer stories where I am rooting for the star of the tale to overcome. I suspect my love of fairytales, which mainly do have happy endings, feeds that. I also think being able to root for a character encourages empathy (which is one of the strengths of fiction) and so I like being able to feel that empathy, therefore I must be able to root for the character.
Also a character can start off being loathed but something during the story changes them. They have to change to achieve their objective. I think of these as redemption stories and A Christmas Carol is a wonderful example. I certainly wasn’t rooting for Ebenezer Scrooge at the start of the story. I was by the time the ghosts started showing him the error of his ways and he began to respond, recognising the need to change.
Working Out What You Need to Know about your Lead Character
Some writers have to visualise their people. There is such a thing as a random picture generator which can help. Within that you can choose the category of people. See link
As with most of the generators, you can set your own parameters. For crowd scenes, you could pick an individual and make them your lead character. You can then start thinking about who they are, what kind of attitudes they have and so on (attitudes are a great indicator of likely major trait and the minor ones springing from that).
For pictures of individuals, especially if they are shown carrying out any action, your story could pivot around what led them to that point. I prefer pictures of landscapes where I can figure out who might live there, what kind of daily problems they’re likely to face and so on. Where I use a visual of a person, I like to see them doing something such as walking. My story could then pivot around what they are walking away from/walking to.
You are looking for a way in to understanding your character. Once you have an understanding, you can then write their story up.
Hearing Their Voices
Fortunately, it is perfectly okay for writers to hear voices in their heads – it is our characters making themselves known to us! I will sometimes think of a phrase and then think yes, this type of character would say that because… and I am beginning to trigger ideas from that.
I also know what kind of language my characters would use (and sometimes what they wouldn’t. I’m unlikely to get a maiden aunt character swearing like the proverbial trooper, for example. Not impossible – my maiden aunt character would have to a phenomenally good reason for using language like that but the story should make that clear).
Also, I have an idea of how my characters speak. Some are down to earth. Some use “posh” language, including refusing to use contractions, slang, or anything of that ilk.
See above for this though you can extend the idea. For example Character A is honest. So is Character B. Where’s the story? One ends up being so honest on a sensitive topic it offends the other and causes further trouble. Asking what traits can lead to can trigger story ideas. Here you could put both characters in a situation where tact is vital and both fail. What would be the outcome? Would they both learn to temper their honesty when the occasion demanded it, say?
There is fun in making your characters learn their life lessons the hard way! Okay, nobody said writers had to be nice, right?! Seriously, any writer does have to put their characters through the mill (doesn’t have to be literally though). That is where the drama is.
Now those mills vary in size. For one character, not being able to get the right colour of shoe for a special event could lead them to do something drastic. For others, they’re committing crimes. The writer decides what that mill is going to be but you do need the characters to serve it. Giving thought to who your characters are, even though you won’t know everything about them immediately, will stop you going off at many an unnecessary tangent as you write your draft.
For me, story has always been about character. I’ve always loved inventing characters so getting to do this all the time for my flash fiction and short stories is a joy. When I’m reading work by others, it is the characters that draw me in. I want to find out what they do and how they overcome a situation. This is why I focus on character rather than plot. The plot comes from the characters, always.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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