Fiction begins in different places for different creators. Sometimes the main character stands out and demands a starring role in something, but the writer figures out what happens around them. Other times, the concept and themes come out clearly, but the human element and characters come next.
Each has its challenges. This post focuses on this second scenario, and the particular challenge of developing a striking main character (MC) to meet the needs of an already rich story context.
For any writer who has been in this position, the effort to create a fitting character feels a bit like trying to paint within a pre-made, elaborate, and expensive frame. Sometimes the image of the world they’ll fit in obscures some of the shaping story elements that help narrow the infinite character possibilities.
Below are story elements and questions to guide character creation in an already set world or plot:
1. POV: Where does my MC have to be for this story to make sense?
Consider a crime drama project. This lends itself well to a situation where a main character would be created after a plot concept, as plot material provides the frame for this genre. There are a few options to consider for the MC: the criminal, the lawyer, the investigator, the victim, the witness, the judge, the lackey. Creative minds may think of more, but a list like this provides material to compare with the story goals.
For each of these options, consider the plot and how that character would see/experience it. If the crime is a murder, having the victim take center stage would take some creative formatting. If the MC were the judge, much of the plot revelation would have to take place either in the courtroom, judicial chambers, or more unorthodox ways. Projecting the “what if” method helps determine how the choice of MC will shape the story.
While a structured crime drama format already contains many role-oriented characters, in other situations the writer may find themselves with several potential MC’s without roles assigned. The following process can be applied in that situation as well, but here we’ll continue with the crime drama example.
An effective MC most often has to be critical to the plot. Being essential to the story helps readers stay invested in them, and justifies the character’s presence rather than just having a narrator who happens to be there to observe. The investigator, lawyer, and criminal are all already central pieces, but the obvious options can obscure other sources of MC potential. If choosing the lackey as the MC, what are the ways he/she could be made crucial to the plot development? They could be a witness, accomplice, rat, and relatable every-man all at once. Move through the whole list to keep from missing out on hidden gems.
3. Pacing: What motivation will make my MC move the story forward?
Considering pacing at the stage of MC creation helps determine whether the story is character-driven or plot-driven. A crime drama can be written both ways, though it all depends on the motivation of the characters in moving the story forward.
Working with the list again, record the motivation for each character. Obviously there will be a half and half in most cases, with one half wanting to solve the case and the other wanting to get away with the crime.
Pushing past these, record their personal motivations. They could be general, like why they pursued the career they did (ex. A tragic backstory for the investigator where a bad guy got away) but stronger, case-sensitive motivations tend to have more punch. Ask what about this specific case/story is personal to each character. It’s extra helpful if the motivation makes their participation crucial, emotional, and life-changing in some way.
4. Theme: Where does my MC need to grow to develop the important themes?
While going through the previous questions, it’s common to come up with a front runner. Before the MC gets the part, consider the crucial dynamic elements. Static, unchanging characters often struggle to resonate with readers. The “perfect” MC is going to need both space and a definite direction to grow.
Consider the themes present in the story. For this theoretical crime drama, a common theme/commentary centers on justice. Abstract concepts provide rich themes, provided something meaningful is explored. For each potential character still in the running, briefly summarize their beliefs on the theme topic. Summarize the belief they hold at the beginning of the story, and then what their belief is at the end of the story. Elaborate if necessary on how it changes, and this should give a good picture of the dynamic arc these characters may follow.
5. Tone: What personal challenges does my MC need to hit the right tones for the story?
Tone, as an element of story craft, has been compared to the emotional paint used to color the events of the tale. Some of the tools for manipulating tone come from the MC, specifically from their reactions to the events. In order for the emotional reactions to hit the correct tone (whether fury-filled, deeply sad, or hilariously light), MC’s have internal/background conflicts. These are like filters used to help alter what is fact on the page into a blend of emotional meanings.
For the surviving MC candidates (by this point it’s likely several have fallen out of favor), brainstorm up to three personal challenges that will support the story’s intended tone. These will likely change as the story takes more shape, but this early list will start the mental process. The personal challenges may include the loss of a loved one before the story’s start, a deep-seated belief/prejudice, maybe a problematic obsession/compulsion. A good example of an investigator (again with the crime drama) can be found in the show Monk. This was a highly successful character, though only one example. Gibbs from NCIS is another, with major losses, hard-held beliefs of the world, and dangerous secrets. Matlock’s title character has lighter personal challenge filters, including stinginess, pride, and a love for old-fashioned truth (not always welcome in a younger generation’s courtroom).
Obviously tonal considerations are more of a final cap to the process, though any one of these steps can create the seed of a great MC. This is just one method. Each of the elements, however, tie in deeply with creating a powerful, compelling, and endearing MC.