By Ekta R. Garg
(A note on the dates in the title: I gave this talk twice in 2020, once in June and once in October, for our local library.)
I heard someone say once that great plots make great books, but great characters make great careers. There might be some debate about that, but there’s no denying the fact that readers love a good, solid character. After all, characters act as our eyes and ears into story worlds, so building three-dimensional characters is essential if we want to keep our readers glued to their seats.
I got my start in publishing by way of journalism. As I went through undergraduate and then graduate school, the digital revolution was just starting to pick up steam. On the surface the curriculum might look different today, but one thing will never change in any journalistic medium: the need to tell a compelling story and to do it well.
Since almost the beginning of time, journalists have relied on a basic formula to build the foundations of their stories: the five Ws and an H: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. Even though we associate these questions with the news, writers use the same tools in short stories and novels. The five Ws and the H appear in every element of our writing. That includes building solid characters.
How does that happen? Let’s start with a quick review of the fundamentals of characters using these elements:
Who are we talking about? Our characters, of course. The people who populate our stories and who lead us through their biggest challenges, only to be transformed by the end.
Underneath the “who are we talking about” question is another W that needs to be answered. Who are we going to choose to tell our story? Ask yourself, Who will have the most to share about the world you’ve created?
An example would be Harry Potter. Harry yearns for a family, for people who will love him and support him. When he discovers his magical talents, he gets that family and much more at Hogwarts. He’s the best person to lead readers throughout the entire series, because finding the wizarding world means more to him than anyone else in the books.
Who will connect to the reader best because of universal emotions that can be translated to particular situations?
What is the story about? At first glance, that might not seem like it has much to do with characters, but it does. In building characters, it’s important to decide what their story is going to be about on the surface, how that reflects what’s going on under the surface, and then make their problems bigger than you initially imagined. That’s where the real writing magic happens.
Anxious People by Swedish author Fredrik Backman is about a failed bank robbery that turns into a hostage situation. Yet the real story is about the fact that everyone connected to the robbery, from the hostages to the cops investigating to the bank robber is worried about what’s coming next in their individual lives because they genuinely believe they may not survive it.
We don’t have to offer earth-shattering, life-altering truths in our works. We just have to know what we want to accomplish in our stories and books and keep our eyes squarely on that. We have to know what the story is about.
Where is your story going to take place? It’ll determine a lot about your character, because it will change how your character reacts in a variety of challenges. It may even set the course for the main plot pieces of your story.
In Indigo Girl by Natasha Boyd (which is based on a real-life figure in history,) pre-Revolutionary teenager Eliza Lucas doesn’t let the challenges of her location deter her from trying to grow indigo so she can support her family’s plantations. The farming conditions of South Carolina, which were great for tobacco and cotton but almost uninhabitable for indigo plants, don’t discourage her at all. If she’d grown up in England, she wouldn’t have ever dreamed of attempting something like this.
Where the story takes place ultimately determines who characters become.
When are you setting your story? Is a particular era important to your piece? For some stories it is. For others, not so much. In many cases, a specific time period will determine many things about your characters. Historical eras will bind characters with restrictions on their ability to move around in society or the limitations of technology. Pay close attention to those things, and they’ll shape how your characters react to challenges.
Kerri Maher’s The Girl in White Gloves is about the 1950s actress Grace Kelly. In that time period, respectable women were expected to get married, have children, and keep house. Grace Kelly fought against this stereotype. She negotiated her own contracts, and she didn’t hesitate to start or end relationships according to what she felt. Given the restrictions on women at that time, Kelly’s story stands out. So be sure to carefully consider your story’s time period and what else is going on at that time.
Not all stories have to make a dramatic statement about an era. The When of your story could be the time of day or a particular season of weather. Just make sure to ask yourself what kind of impact it has on your characters.
Why have you chosen your particular protagonist to tell the story you need to tell? What about that person makes him or her stand out? Why are they best suited to the events you’ve got in mind?
Also, why are you telling this story right now? Is there anything happening in the world today that compels you to pick this story?
In November 2019, Mary Higgins Clark’s last book came out. It’s called Kiss the Girls and Make Them Cry, and it’s a MeToo story. Clark said she wanted to write a timely book based on important current events.
How do we do all of this and write compelling characters? It’s easy: the five Ws and H. We can use them again to start putting together the key elements of our characters. Let’s start from the top with our first W, Who, only this time we’re going to break it down to the basics.
Who will you choose? An adult or a child? Will it be someone male, female, or someone who self-identifies? Start with this simple fact. Then give this person a name and an age.
What does your character look like? You don’t have to plan out every single facial feature, but it helps to be able to picture this person. Think of people from TV or films who look like the personality you want to portray. Then decide on their physical appearance.
Are they tall, short, or medium height? What’s their eye color? What kinds of clothes do they wear? What in their lives enables that wardrobe? If your character is well-heeled, do they have a profession that pays well? If they’re a shabby dresser, is that a reflection of their financial status or their personality?
What does your character do all day? If they’re an adult, are they working? If they’re a child, do they go to school?
What do they think about their current working or educational status?
Finally, and most importantly, what do they want, deep down, that they can’t have at the beginning of the story?
Eliza in The Indigo Girl wants the respect of the men in her life for solving a major problem.
Harry Potter wants a home with a loving family.
The characters in Anxious People want to feel safe again; they want the reassurance that their lives won’t be upended by upcoming changes.
Where does your character live? A house? A hotel? On the street? A particular city or state? Does their location affect who they are?
Where will the characters spend the bulk of the story? Where will the characters spend the turning points of the story? Will that location change them?
When does your character’s routine get upended? When will you introduce pressure points that will force them to act? When does your character start to change?
Why is your character in this situation? Why will it change them?
How will this story impact your character in the long term? How will they change forever? How do they become different people? How are they better or worse? How far have they come in their personal journeys?
It’s only after answering these questions that you can get to know your characters better. When you know your characters better, even if you don’t spell out every single answer in your stories, you’d be amazed at how the information comes out even at a subconscious level. Even more, you’ll be thrilled to discover that the characters aren’t just characters. They’re real people.
Resources to consult (and that I use regularly)
The Emotion Thesaurus and The Occupation Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi
The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Dr. Linda Edelstein
Take Off Your Pants! Outline Your Novel for Better, Faster Writing by Libbie Hawker