On The Table Read, “The Best Book Reader Magazine in the UK“, author JJ Barnes writes about how to develop your characters around your changing story as you write.
Written by JJ Barnes
When you first start writing your story, you’ll probably go in knowing who your Protagonist is. Your protagonist is the main character and it’s their story you’re telling, so that makes sense. However, unless you’re telling a one person story, you’ll need other characters. For some people they need to plot and plan all their characters in advance. But, if you’re more like me, you’ll want to develop your characters as your story unfolds. I’ll teach you how.
Develop Your Characters Around Your Protagonist
It’s likely you’ll have the clearest idea in your head who your Protagonist is. So, as you start writing, who do they interact with? Around them they’re like to to have friends, both good and toxic. They’ll have maybe family, colleagues or classmates. People they interact with.
Whilst they might be surrounded by people, the people they mainly interact with should be created to move the plot forwards. There’s no point giving page time to characters who don’t benefit your story at all. To develop your characters in the close circle around your Protagonist, work out what they do for your story. Are they a voice of encouragement to push your Protagonist forwards? Are they a voice of opposition to put challenges and doubt in your Protagonist’s way?
As your write, work out what that scene needs. Develop your characters around that need. The conflict needs to be kept alive, so put people in there they can talk to and move their story forwards with. If they do nothing for your story, they don’t belong in your scene unless it’s as background noise.
The Characters Around Your Protagonist Need To Be Developed In Their Own Right
Whilst your characters around your Protagonist only exist FOR your Protagonist, don’t write them as if that’s true. If everybody circling your Protagonist only has your character and your story in their lives, it won’t feel real. Every character you write should be the Protagonist of their own story. So work out who they are as individuals as well as what you need them to do and be in that moment.
As you create the people that your story and your scene needs, make them people. Develop your characters as individuals with their own story goals, their own motivation. Each character has backstory, each character has things they want to accomplish that are separate to your story. You don’t explore it because they’re not YOUR Protagonist, but it’s there and it shapes their behaviour.
By developing your characters as people on their own journey, you’re making interesting people. They respond as individuals not as story bots. They have opinions shaped by their own lives. They help or hinder your Protagonist for their own reasons as part of their own story. Even though you know your whole fictional universe revolves around your Protagonist, don’t write it as if it does.
Develop Your Antagonist
Your Protagonist is who you are following on their story journey, and your Antagonist is why it’s a story. If your Protagonist can just go and get what they want then there’s no story, so work out what’s getting in their way. Whether it’s one or more Antagonists, develop your characters that create that challenge.
By throwing obstacles in your Protagonist’s way, you’re forcing them to grow and learn with your story. Watching a character becoming the best version of themselves by how they face challenges is appealing. It will make your audience root for your Protagonist and hope they accomplish their story goal.
Your main Antagonist, and any antagonistic characters, need to be as motivated for their own reasons as everybody else. They cannot just exist to cause problems in your Protagonist’s life. They are causing those problems because of their own journey.
So when you move through your story, develop your characters that cause those problems based on what your story needs in that moment. What obstacle does that scene need for your Protagonist to fight against? Who is causing it? Then when you’ve worked that out, work out what their own personal motivation is for doing it.
Develop Your Characters For Your Story, Then Make Them Live
Your first job is to develop your characters by what your story needs. If your story doesn’t need them, they shouldn’t be there. If your first draft is purely a basic characters run through, that’s fine. Your first draft can be basic. It’s just about getting your story out. But when you edit, look at those characters. You’ve developed their position in your story by what is necessary, and now you make them live.
Edit those characters to make them alive in their own right, as motivated and interesting as your Protagonist. Make the way they speak and their reactions are caused by their own life experiences. Your story will feel richer and your audience will feel more connected to your story because everybody in your story feels alive.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose
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