Creating Quality Characters

In the world of writing, the question that can appear most often is which comes first. No, not the chicken and egg conundrum. The plot vs character debate.

I just started drafting a new story, one that I’ve been thinking about for over nine months. My writing energy and focus was on editing and revising a different book, but every once in a while, I’d get a glimpse at these new characters. Then, while waiting for beta feedback, I had to come up with something to remain sane I started outlining a new book.

I’m firmly planted in the Create Character First Camp.

Once I get a feel for the characters (names, setting, occupations, family situation) I always take time to get to know them. Usually, the questions go something like this:

What does this character want, more than anything?

What is it that makes them lie awake at night, pondering the what ifs?

Where can they go, or what can they see that creates an ache in their chest because of complete longing?

What is holding them back from trying? What set of circumstances will make them try?

And, the biggie, what happens/how do they react when they fail?

You might be thinking that their success is the biggie. But think, for a moment, about the successes you’ve had in your own life. Which ones created the greatest joy for you? Which ones left you laughing and crying at the same time? Chances are decent that the successes that fall into this category were rarely, if ever, challenge free.

We need to see the failure of characters to discover who they really are. We need to see them hurt and long and look about their world in lost confusion, uncertain about nearly everything before the transition to joy can have an impact.

Please note, when I start with these characters, even though I’m considering them, I don’t nail each of these aspects. I can’t even identify them in myself and I’ve been living with me for a long time.

But getting a feel for them helps guide the plot, helps me know what kind of people would make life more difficult, which characters they need to encourage and guide them in the direction of their dreams.

And, somehow, helping our characters work through failures often increases our ability to do the same.

Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a dash of magic. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is the managing editor for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter.