Finding the perfect wrong character for your story.

Plot usually comes first for me. And then the character that seems to fit best. Guess what?

At first, that character wears cliché like a toddler does food.

So this time around, I went out of my way to create a character that on paper would be the worst possible choice. What character would fail miserably for this story goal? And why? What character would absolutely not want to complete this story goal? And why? And then add personal stakes so they have to complete the story goal.

All in hopes that this will build in automatic inner and outer conflict. And add a bit of humor.

But another choice would be to create that perfect character for the role but burden him/her with a major flaw. A fear. A troublesome past. A physical handicap. An emotional handicap.

The danger in creating any character is going too far in either direction and ending up with a cartoon (which I’ve done). And as usual, the biggest challenge is the actual writing and making that character come alive on the page.

How do you create your characters? Do you tweak them to create more conflict? Or do your characters come first and then you build the plot around them?

22 Responses to Finding the perfect wrong character for your story.

  1. Carole Anne Carr October 22, 2010 at 9:51 am #

    Arghhhh! I’ve just realised that my books are historical so characters are made to fit the needs of the plot. Now I’m writing fantasy and the characters are busy leading the plot despite me, and I haven’t done sufficient research into them for this to work! Back to the drawing board…

  2. write-brained October 22, 2010 at 11:56 am #

    Yeah, the plot first and an idea in mind for my MC! and it’s embarassing how many cliches are created at first to get the first draft done–EEK! 😉

    • Laura October 22, 2010 at 12:10 pm #

      Carole – I never thought about the difference between historical and fantasy character but it makes sense.

      Christina – My brain seems to work in cliches so I know not to accept my first, second, or third plot or character idea!

  3. Terri Tffany October 22, 2010 at 1:35 pm #

    Funny, I usually think of a character at the same time the plot comes to mind. My biggest problem though is making the MC relatable. (did I spell that right?) And one to like. Hmm. Still getting it down.

  4. Jennifer Hoffine October 22, 2010 at 2:01 pm #

    I usually get to know my characters before my plot. There’s a premise or hook involved from the beginning, but it’s much easier for me to think in terms of what plot thing can happen that will test my protag the most/block or attain her goals/help her learn something, rather than trying to think the other way around.

  5. Laura October 22, 2010 at 2:05 pm #

    Terri – Great point. I struggle with that to sometimes. A relatable char. is important.

    Jennifer – I think it’s important to get to knwo your character before writing because they should direct how the plot moves forward! I find a end up with a combination of plot driven/char. driven.

  6. Laurel October 22, 2010 at 2:46 pm #

    Like Jennifer, I usually start with character and premise and the plot usually unfolds from there. Although sometimes cool plot ideas bubble up, then it’s tricky to figure out how to relate my character’s goals and motivations to them. Does this mean I have the worst of both approaches? Ha! 😀

  7. Quinn October 22, 2010 at 3:38 pm #

    I come up with the characters and plot concurrently. I guess the plot comes a split second earlier, but characters are such an integral part of any story that I usually think of them together. I mean, really, there’s no one but those characters that the plot can happen to.

    I don’t even really spend time giving them flaws. It may sound weird, but they kind of come to me as fully formed people. Then, if they have some flaw or fear it usually reveals itself in the story on its own.

    For example, in my last book, the MC starts seeing ghosts. His best friend was supposed to be the only one to support him and stick with throughout the whole novel. So what happens? I find myself writing the two getting into a fight and the friend pulling away. I didn’t plan for him to do that. I didn’t plan for him to have a limit to what he could take. He just did.

  8. Carolyn Abiad October 22, 2010 at 5:00 pm #

    I have difficulty with supporting characters too. They’re cardboard Flat Stanleys for a while, going through the motions until I figure out what inspired role the MC wants them to have.

  9. Lois Moss October 22, 2010 at 5:15 pm #

    I have a character that appears very cliche at first but in the end she shows her inner depth.

    • Laura October 22, 2010 at 5:34 pm #

      Laurel – I guess that’s part of the process! Getting mc’s and plots to connect!

      Quinn – I love when characters end up differently on page then in my head, usually they’re better than what I had planned.

      Carolyn – Supporting characters are harder to develop but well worth the time!

      Lois – It’s the innerdepth that makes our characters so differet! Sounds like you’re on the right track!

  10. Robert Guthrie October 22, 2010 at 5:41 pm #

    For me, plot begins with characters and often my biggest task is to get out of the way. It’s their story, not mine.

  11. Cinette October 22, 2010 at 6:29 pm #

    Anytime that I start with plot my characters are cardboard cutouts. The more detailed the plot, the worse the characters.

  12. J E Fritz October 22, 2010 at 8:39 pm #

    For me, the plot always comes first. I tend to ask myself more “What is the most interesting way for him/her to react” than “what about him/her is interesting?” Does that make sense?

    I also think in the first draft, my current MC wasn’t much more than a place holder. Sure, there were bits of character here and there, but there was the strong feeling of “blah.” Slowly he’s becoming more 3D, but I hope, like you said, not cartoonish.

  13. Sarah Mullen Gilbert October 22, 2010 at 8:45 pm #

    I love this idea! Talk about instant conflict. My current WIP I thought of the character first, but the new shiny idea was mainly plot, so I’ll try this for MC development.

  14. Cindy R. Wilson October 22, 2010 at 9:31 pm #

    That’s a great way to discover your character! I often think of a plot and kind of work my character in as I go. This usually means have a faceless, jobless character that has a goal. Then I give them motivations for that goal and toss in other characters and events to stop them from getting what they want.

    • Laura October 22, 2010 at 10:42 pm #

      Thanks for commenting everyone. Kind of like there are plotters and pantsers, some of us create plot and then fine tune our characters to fit and other focus more on character and let them go where they want. I don’t think either way is right or wrong as long as by the end you have a 3D character!

  15. Jemi Fraser October 22, 2010 at 11:32 pm #

    What a great idea!! I always ‘see’ the ending scene in my head first and go from there, but I love this idea 🙂

  16. Stina Lindenblatt October 22, 2010 at 11:57 pm #

    I usually have an idea for a story, then develop my major players first. That gives me ideas for the plot and conflicts. 😀

  17. Catherine A. Winn October 24, 2010 at 2:50 am #

    I usually have a plot idea first, then I choose the protagonist, the second charcter I create is the antagonist. Usually the main thing I concentrate on for the anatagonist is the psychological makeup. Once that is decided I work out the physical characteristics.

  18. Ishta Mercurio October 24, 2010 at 3:04 am #

    Good question! For my PBs, I usually think of a character in a situation first, and then I think about how they would get out of that situation.

    For my novel, I thought of the main plot elements first, but the primary conflict within the plot was a personal characteristic – but then the rest of my MC (and everybody else) was cliche after cliche. It took a major rethink to get rid of that stuff.

  19. Dayana Stockdale October 26, 2010 at 4:20 am #

    That is a fantastic idea. It reminds of studying Hamlet and tragedy and that essential element of the tragic flaw. I only hope that your character makes it in the end! This is a great way to start. Sometimes we think we create these perfect, awesome characters and the flaws are afterthoughts, but the flaws really move the story forward so I like the idea of having them come first.

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