About 10 gazillion ways exist to begin a novel. Some folks start with a plot idea. Or, a place. Some with outlining the entire manuscript. Many just sit down and begin writing.
But for me, everything begins with the characters.
Specifically, the Protagonist. Because that’s the person around whom the entire novel swims through the choppy seas of the storyline. Or, sinks.
Nothing is as imperative to a book as the main character, driving the plot. The plot will change him, but he will drive the entire bus—from beginning to end.
A lot is resting on his or her shoulders.
But does that mean your Protagonist has to be perfect, or that you know her fully well to begin?
Yep, you have to know him completely, from stem to stern and everywhere in between, in order to fashion a fully formed character who is three-sided, flesh and bone, someone your readers will remember for years to come, by the time you’re finished with the tome.
But you don’t have to in the beginning.
Many writers pen from “discovery,” getting to know the story, the plot, and the people as they go. This is a more completely creative way to go about writing a novel, but it comes with many perils.
Chief among them may be that when you finish the first draft, who you thought this person was is far different from whom he became.
And that translates into lots of revisions.
But then, revision is the name of this game anyway, so don’t let that daunt you.
I give my writers many exercises in order for them to get clear on plotting and characterization. And one of the best ones we do is this:
Write a short story about each of your main characters (Protagonist, Antagonist, and any viewpoint characters you have), not to be included in the book. This is for your own edification only (which has the added plus of just letting creativity soar).
Here you want to:
֎ Find a seminal moment in his history—a rite-of-passage of some sort; an event that changed him; something that turned him in an entirely different direction or made him who he is.
֎ Notice the other players in this drama. Some of them may make appearances in the novel itself (even if only in a flashback scene), and now you know who they are and the parts they played.
֎ Identify the issues your character faced then. Note which ones still exist. We rarely resolve our foibles in one fell swoop, and this Achilles’ heel may end up as the driving force for our hero. Or villain.
֎ See what part or parts did get resolved. This should now be a big character strength. What we overcome makes us stronger.
֎ Find what turned our villain into such an awful person. Or why the anti-hero, who does have strengths, still falls back into weakness.
֎ This will also help you see why your hero has the alliances that she does—those folks were there for her when she needed them. Ditto the enemies.
What also works well, especially for your Protagonist, is to write a series of these—childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, failed marriage, etc.
And what you’ll end up with is someone you know quite well. Then you can portray her on the page in much more depth, in many fewer words, and she’ll become as real as my next-door neighbor to me.
As you go, keep notes on him. Not just hair and eye color, but where that crescent-shaped scar under his chin came from. And why he loves Cocker Spaniels so much. And how hard (or easy) geometry is for him. And why he loves red-headed girls.
And, well, just a litany of parts and pieces of him you would never have known otherwise.
As you then go through revisions, all of those things and so many more will work up through you and into his character as he travels through the course of this novel.
But again, the name of this game is revision, so you’ll be doing that anyway!
How do you get to know your characters?