Creating a Main Character


When a writer sits down to write a novel there comes a point where a main character is born.  There could be several main characters, but often there is one that is absolutely central and this character above all others must be well made.  There are some obvious reasons why you’d want a well constructed main character, but there is at least one less obvious reason.  I’ll start with the obvious, then the less obvious and move into some good ways to address these points in character creation.

Why a good character?

The most straightforward reason to have a good character is because he (and don’t get all up on me about gender identity and the male pronoun alright?  I don’t really care about post modern deconstructions of the patriarchal imperialism of language) needs to someone the reader cares about.  They either want to see them succeed or fail, whichever is appropriate.  He needs to be someone who can be visualized and understood.

The second reason to have a well made character is to increase the level of tension in the story.  A character who can only be described by his gender, name and occupation will not by themselves generate tension or suspense.

Now a less obvious reason to have a main character who is well realized: it makes your job as a writer a lot easier.  A character with a rich history, with flaws and weaknesses is a walking story regardless your desired plot.  I made the mistake in my first draft of The West Queen (one of many I made) of making the main character innocent and friendly.  He was nice enough and so long as my plot was thick and fast paced, so long as events were moving headlong toward a climax, everything was OK.  The moment after the initial goal was reached he and the story ran out of puff.  I had to think really hard to come up with some kind of drama to keep the novel moving.  It was around that point I realized the problem wasn’t the story but the character.  I had to rebuild him and rewrite the novel to match.  Had I made him correctly the first time, that wouldn’t have happened.

How a good character?

I could have had the heading: what a good character?  But the how leads into the what so nicely.  I think as I get better at writing I will come up with ways to create subtle, deeply complex characters without using what I’m about to tell you and when I do, I’ll blog it.  In the meantime, here is how I worked up my latest character:

  1. Name.  I named him Matthew (Matt) Simmons.  No particular reason.  The story is set in the near future in Australia, so why be too fancy?  There is, however, a more cunning reason for the simple name:  I want the name to contrast with the far from simple existence he’ll be leading.  Had I called him Darius Marbodoom and he had super powers and flew an alien spaceship, things might be a little vanilla.  So I gave him a fairly basic Anglo Saxon name to ground him before he goes all super heroic.  Yes, that’s a gimmick I have picked up.  Just look at Harry Potter (trade mark and all that).  The story is about wizards and dragons and flying cars, but the main character is called Harry and his best friend is called Ron.  Sure there’s Dumbledore, Snape and Draco Malfoy but they aren’t the main characters.  In fact their names form part of their description which reduces their impact as characters, which is helpful.
  2. Age.  I made him 27.  I chose that age after careful consideration.  I want him to have an established career.  That’s part of the story.  I also want him to be old enough to have grown cynical, to have a little money, to not be responsible for family and also old enough to be viewed as completely independent while still being “young”.  I thought about making him a teenager, but, and no offence to any teens who read this, they seriously don’t have the sort of philosophical outlook I require for my story.  I remember being 27 and remember that it was the age I was most free, most lively and while still a little foolish, I was wise enough to look after myself.  So the age doesn’t directly lead into him being interesting, but you can see you need to be particular about it.
  3. He needed a reason to be good.  I made that reason be that he is really smart.  Like genius brains and also empathetic.  You see he is really smart and able to see that humanity, all of us including himself, can live so much more happily if we work together and be nice.  He can’t stand watching injustice because he can see how the little things add to become big things, how someone being angry and yelling at someone else can ruin everyone’s day.  But, this doesn’t make him interesting.  A super smart person is rarely all that interesting to read about because they just know everything all the time.  So I needed something to temper that.
  4. He has brain damage.  The brain damage means he isn’t smart all the time but rather has dull, out of focus times and sharp exploding brain times.  You see, I gave him a strength and this is his weakness.  His brain damage comes from his drug use.  Because he’s so clever he has anxiety attacks so he takes amphetamines and barbiturates (Valium) to stop from frothing at the mouth.  The down side is that for most of the time he is in a drug stupor and he is somewhat dependent on the stuff.
  5. Physical description: he is tall, because tall is powerful, but he is skinny and pale because he isn’t very healthy.  He is a bit alternative because he is quite angst ridden and drugged up so he has the sides of his head shaved and has a dyed black mohawk type thing that he flops over the side of his head.  He wears PVC jeans and a buckle covered leather and plastic jacket.  This physical look sets him apart socially so things don’t always go his way.
  6. He has a crush on a lesbian.  Yes, because his life isn’t hard enough as it is, the girl of his dreams is gay.  I mean she is honest to goodness gay, not just waiting for the right man to come along gay.  He has no chance, never will.  That’s going to mess with him and lead to awkward situations.  Now to top it off, she is a cop who he works with (he isn’t a police officer, just a private consultant) and who has a crush on his sister.  His sister is a chemist who makes his drugs for him and if the cop found out about all of that, things would get tricky.

Can you see what I’ve done to create this guy?  There is more to him and most of it is bad (his mum was a prostitute who OD’d and he and his sister became wards of the state for example).  I came up with the couple of points I needed to make my story work and then heaped crap on him.  Maybe you don’t want to be quite so extreme, but the point is this guy is a walking story.  He has so much potential to improve and so many opportunities to get over hard times he is bound to be interesting.

Less obvious crap

So that character I just went through was pretty dire, but he does demonstrate my method.  Add what you need for the story then make a bunch of conflicts and potential problems.  If you look at your basic TV show character you’ll see they’ve done the same thing.  Some are more obvious than others.  For example, how many US TV show characters are funny, nice, attractive and successful yet have issues with their father never saying he was proud of them?  This means whenever the story gets a little slow, his / her dad turns up and puts the pressure on.  Now the normally funny and successful character is suddenly nervous and keen to impress their father which leads to tragedy or comedy depending on the type of show.  The more skilled a writer is, the more easily they will be able to introduce subtle conflicts, tics and anxieties that will surface to push the story along, to reveal more about the character and more about the world.  In the meantime have a go at roughing your character up.  Make them shout obscenities at inappropriate moments.  Or they could have a penchant for wearing outlandish hats.  You can have them walk into a church and refuse to remove their hat when asked and then swear outrageously at the priest.  How about that for a little drama?

What I did with The West Queen

With my boring main character in The West Queen I first added more emotion to him and rewrote his intro to make him more on edge and violent.  I then realized that he isn’t the main character of my story anyway so I wrote an extra couple of chapters at the start to focus the story on Princess Candia West (hence the title of the book The West Queen).  Anyway she is far more gently scarred than is Matt Simmons above, but nonetheless has inner conflict and external ones too.

I say go for it, make your character have a bad and sordid past, give him scars and anxieties.  It makes it so much easier to write.  Once you’ve written your novel you can always chop out the stuff that doesn’t help.

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About sjohnhughes

Author, nerd, father, runner and more View all posts by sjohnhughes

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