People have asked where my characters come from. My response frequently is, “I don’t know. He just showed up one day and said he had a story to tell.”
That’s how Michael Archer, the protagonist of my Riverbend series, came to be.
The first glimmer of book one, Journey to Riverbend, came, like most of my story ideas, from an image. There was a guy standing on a ridge looking into a valley. The sun was setting. He wore a cowboy hat and held the reins to a horse. OK, I thought, it’s a western. I like westerns.
Other than that, he was a dark silhouette, a mysterious shadow.
I said to myself, “Who is he and why is he standing there?” This was my first step as writer. I met my first character.
At that time, I didn’t know much about the craft, especially about creating characters. I just knew I had to write. So, I jumped in with both feet. Of course, the water was over my head.
But I had enough sense to get to know Michael and what his story was.
He was in his late twenties and had lived a prodigal life before coming to know Jesus. In an almost Inigo Montoya voice, his told, “My name is Michael Archer and I believed I killed my father.”
He told about his early childhood on a farm in Southern New England. Not a prosperous farm because his father was a drunk and abusive to Michael, his sister Ellie, and their mother. One day, at age 13, Michael caught his father molesting Ellie. He defended his sister with a pitchfork and stabbed his father. He ran away leaving his father gushing blood. His sister ran to a neighboring farm. His mother was dead on the kitchen floor after another beating from her husband.
Michael drifted into a life of alcohol, gambling, and violence. He was becoming just like his father. Except he hated farming. Until…he was sitting in a jail cell in a small town in Missouri after another night of drinking and fighting. The town minister visited him and led him to Jesus. This is much condensed version of Michael’s conversion experience which took several visits from the preacher often with the risk of a punch in the nose, or worse.
In learning the craft, I’ve come across and tried to use various tools to build characters. I’ve used Meyer-Briggs and other personality trait systems. I’ve completed detailed questionnaires. These I found to be frustrating because they took a lot of time to fill out and yielded a lot of information I never used.
The system that works best for me is what I used with Michael. I let him tell me his story. I’ve added some questions to get deeper into his motivations. Questions like:
What is the character’s primary story goal?
What will the character do if he or she doesn’t achieve this goal?
What are the character’s core values?
As I write the story, I look for ways to bring these values into conflict, so the character must make a choice between two good values at the climax.
Another key component for me to bring a character to life is to anticipate surprises from the character as the story moves along. When I let the character tell the story, he reveals more about himself. Stuff not shown earlier or in the preparation of the story material. For me, this makes the character alive, not bland information on a sheet of paper or in a form or chart. The character is more human because he or she has the opportunity to do something unexpected. If it surprises me, it will surprise the reader and make the story more dynamic.
What are some things you’ve found useful in bringing your characters to life?