Though characters are invented to highlight a block of moments in Fiction Land, they need to feel like they’ve existed before that time. If your MC is 24, this means 24-years worth of relationships, past experiences and events have shaped her and made her who she is in your story’s today. Build her yesterday as fully as you can. You not only have roots and depth to expose, you can find inspiration and angles of conflict you never would have considered or seen. Out of great character development, you find plot.
As an example, let’s do a sketch for a romance suspense novel.
We’ve got a heroine, a month shy of 26, 5'6", not stick thin or heavy, but a little curvier than she’d like to be from eating frozen dinners and ice cream out of the carton on nights when she feels bummed. She has golden brown hair, which falls slightly past her shoulders, jade green eyes, nicely curved eyebrows, a sweet round face. She's a college graduate, but like so many, she can't catch a break or get recognized for her talent in photography, which is her passion. She loves to capture not just beauty but true life and grit. Her main desire is to work fulltime as a freelance photographer or photojournalist so she can quit her job working for Jonesy, a sleazy investigator. She FINALLY just moved out of her parent's house and has an apartment. At least it's her own space, decorated without one gaudy flower in sight, smelling of yummy dessert candles and NOT fried onions, but it's not exactly in the best neighborhood. She would also like to find love at some point but doesn’t believe it will happen for her. She wishes to be more optimistic but turmoil seems to find her. She’s feisty, spontaneous, strong-willed but shy.
Why is she shy? Was she abandoned, abused, picked on all through school? Maybe something makes her self-conscious. A physical problem like a limp or a scar. I’ll go with scars. And she was ridiculed for those scars, so they go deeper than skin. I’ll put a scar on her left eyebrow, where she has to pencil in hair, and a few faded gouge marks on her cheek. She’s very conscious of them. She never, ever puts her hair up, preferring to style it in waves to somewhat conceal them. She usually dips her chin when talking to people she doesn’t know. She hates that she does that because she wishes to project confidence, but it almost seems to be a response she can’t control.
What caused these old scars? Fall through a glass door? Car accident? Dog attack? Dog attack seems right. That will give her a hatred and fear of dogs with which I can use to create conflict?
Who will not only compliment yet contrast her but also have a love and appreciation for dogs? Our hero will be 28, legally blind, 5' 10". He can see light and vague forms, but everything is drenched in deep, blurry shadow. He never uses a cane in familiar places. Everything's mapped out and paced in his head, like musical numbers. He lives on the heroine's hall, and since she's moved in, they've been quibbling almost every day over trivial things.
He’s adventurous and loves to shatter the limits people place on him. He lives in routine: shaves his head every morning, eats a good breakfast, always something with eggs, works out at the gym, gets his coffee black then spikes it with a dash of cayenne pepper. He's a journalist by day, gourmet chef by night. He’s chatty, witty and opinionated. He’s built and athletic. He can play a good game of 3-on-3 b-ball, learned by paces and sound. He's a little too self-assured, thinks he's Han Solo, and doesn't know when to quit.
Everyone is always complimenting his eyes, but there's no agreement on color, some say blue, others grey, others green. He knew those colors in early childhood before he lost his sight from a head injury, but they’ve become shrouded by new ones brought on by sound, colors he’s sure no one on earth has ever seen.
He can identify people long before they speak, by their footsteps, jingling keys or scent. Despite his quick ascent up the reporter ranks, people tend to treat him like he’s deaf, mentally handicapped or incapable of living alone, with the exception of his best friend Teddy, the hot dog vender on Court Street, and this little spit fire on his hall. She's never once treated him like some freak of nature. He gets kicks out of picking fights with her because she gets so easily steamed.
With a hunger to take on meatier work, he decides to get a guide dog to help him on self-imposed assignments. Suddenly his hall friend is no longer around, at all. He was getting used to her too. Not like he was going to ask her on a date or anything. Finding love is the very last thing on his mind. His previous girlfriend, who often boasted of her 15/20 vision and attractiveness, moved out nine months ago after three years and left him with nothing more than some kissoff note his crazy mother, of all people, had to read to him.
His new dog pal, Skippy, a chocolate brown retriever he's told, is cool, adept and friendly. He never barks or growls, but he gives out a little gruff any time he's called Skippy. Our hero changes his name to Bud, which seems to be more to his liking.
Just as our heroine realizes her irritation with her hallmate is actually a scorching attraction, he gets of all things, a dog. A DOG. She knows it's one of those aid dogs, but still, it's a dog, and all dogs are evil.
These two destined lovers need a plot now, something that pulls them together and additional conflicts that threaten to drive them apart.
Since he's a reporter, maybe he’s following the path of a serial killer/rapist, who’s been terrorizing woman along the East Coast. And maybe his blindness gives him a keenness for seeing things others can't. Nuances. True character. Patterns. Our guy studies the facts and sees a pattern emerge regarding location and type of girl chosen. He tells his theory to the police, but they disregard him because he’s blind, and therefore stupid. He ends up being wrong in his first guess. He persists, sure he's on to something, and learns his spunky neighbor is hunting too. When they report their joint findings to the FBI, everything around them starts to squeeze, making them think the rapist could be a high ranking official or cousin of the President or something. They're forced to go on the run while they hunt and try to prevent another slaying.
So, we’ve got these two sparring individuals and a dog stuck together, which opens up a lot of conflict possibilities and emotion. How will they deal? Will his hellcat ex enter the picture, or his overprotecting, overbearing mother? Will our girl overcome her fear of dogs, at least enough? Who's next on the raping killer's list? Is the FBI really letting him get away or is something else going on? Will he be caught and punished? Will I make the heroine doubt the man she's with? Will love find a way and win out beyond all obstacles and dogs? Will I scrap the serial killer angle altogether and go for something entirely different? A fight for survival in some catastrophe? A tag-team effort for a story and while investigating, they uncover some conspiracy? No. That last one won't work because she'd never voluntarily be anywhere near a dog. Needs to be by force, no other option.
Guess you’ll have to read my next novel. ;)
This is the start of a brainstorming session. I did all that on the fly by simply looking at her and dissecting the word shy. Then I'll take this primary workup, and go deeper, studying motivations and what makes these characters tic so I can discover ways they can help each other. Both of them are self-focused and need to break out of that mindset in order for their love to work. The hero needs to help her see the beauty in herself that she can't see. And she needs to help him to trust and to not be so averse to relying on others sometimes.
This is why getting into a character’s head and examining those whys and what-ifs is so important. It’s not just about placing a marionette into your story to fluff it out; it’s about fleshing out, examining, finding the story that’s beneath the one you want and hope to tell. Characters can shape and steer your work in completely unexpected ways and give you fresh and interesting plot ideas. So go introduce yourself and get to know those creations of yours, inside and out. Then tell that story. That's your winner.
~ Signing off and sending out Cyber hugs.