- M.C. Thomas
Four Ways to Develop Your Main Character
Say you're reading a novel. The prose is phenomenal. It's full of amazing descriptions, immersing you into each and every setting. The plot is tightly-written and well-thought out. But you're just not invested in the main character, so you put the book down.
Say you're watching a movie. The acting is some of the best you've ever seen. The cinematography is gorgeous. The special effects and action choreography are top-notch. But you could care less about the main character, so you turn it off.
Characters are the most important element of any story. No matter how great a writer you are or how fresh your concepts are, none of it matters if the readers aren't on board with the primary character. Relating to a character and going on a journey with them is what will keep readers and viewers invested.
Here are four ways to make sure your main character is well-developed throughout a story.
1) Give them a strong desire that drives the story
Readers or viewers immediately connect with a character that has a clear and virtuous goal, especially when that character is willing to face any trials and tribulations to reach it.
Everyone has goals in life, and everyone has something that has kept them from reaching it. This is why people gravitate toward a protagonist who has their own limitations, but is willing to go all-out to achieve their goal. Because not only does it make them relatable, but it empowers the reader to work harder toward their own desires.
Any character that can motivate a reader to achieve their dreams is a character that people are going to love.
2) Have them go through a transformation
Author Ted Dekker defines story as "a series of events that happens to worthy characters who change as a result of those events." It's a simplistic yet very accurate description of what readers want.
Rocky Balboa went from being a nobody living in the slums to the heavyweight champ. Luke Skywalker was a lonely farm boy who became a Jedi master and savior of the galaxy. Some of the most iconic protagonists of all time are average people doing extraordinary things. This is another element of story that empowers and motivates people, as it makes them think, "If they can do it, I can too.”
Whether it's a gradual change throughout the story or a sudden epiphany, the main character's transformation should be evident. It can happen internally or externally, but as I've stated in other articles, a good character should always be pushed to their limits. Transformation doesn't happen without tribulation.
3) Create a Character Fact Spreadsheet
A character should be distinct, memorable, and feel real. An important way to accomplish this is to know every detail about them, and not just the basic stuff like physical features and occupation. What is their favorite food? Shows or books? What kind of car do they drive and why? Where did they go to school, and what subject was their favorite? Do they have any allergies? Is there a word or phrase they tend to use a lot?
Think about a close friend or family member, and think of all the random details, quirks, and facts you know about them. This is the level of knowledge you should have about your character, as it will make them feel more real and relatable.
Creating a spreadsheet that outlines these details will make writing your character feel easy and natural. There are plenty of random character attributes that may not make it into the story, but the more you know your character, the more likable and relatable they will be to both you and your readers or viewers.
4) Write a short story or film about them
Before writing a novel or movie screenplay, sometimes it is helpful to write a smaller story to get to know your character better. Think of it as a trial run before the main story, where you can learn more about your character's background, desires, relationships, and how they react to certain situations.
When writing a novel or screenplay, it's easy to focus solely on furthering the plot while forgetting to develop the characters. Writing a short story can allow you to get comfortable with a character to the point where, instead of having to constantly ask yourself how they will they respond to a plot development, you will naturally know.
You can then use elements and excerpts from the short story and include them in your novel or screenplay. This can be a technique to have a solid backstory in place for your main character before you even start your bigger story.