For a lot of writers, character is what comes first, both in the idea stage, and the story stage. A story idea is born from the glimmer of a character.
A girl who can fly.
A boy who lost his parents in a war.
A man who is obsessed with the color blue.
Something about that vague person sparks interest and we spin an entire novel (or series) from that. But after that initial spark, how do you fan it into a flame? Or harder still, how do you know who else to add to the fire?
Some secondary characters will appear soon after the protagonist comes to mind, like the antagonist. Sidekicks or best friends are usually easy to add. But the rest? It's not always clear who will be needed or why.
There are some archetypes though. Character types that frequently populate stories because they're useful, like the sidekick/best friend type. The protagonist will need someone to talk to to help move the story along. A love interest is not uncommon. An enemy who isn't the antagonist just to keep the pressure on. Family members, both good and bad. A mentor type.
When deciding who is going to be part of your story, try thinking about the types of roles you'll need.
1. Who are the people that are going to provide information to the protagonist?
These could be wise mentors, a chatty gal at the records office, even a double agent. Look at the broad scope of your story and its world and see where information might come to your protagonist. Maybe one of those areas can spawn a great character.
2. Who are the people who are going to get in the protagonist's way?
The antagonist is the obvious one, but who else? Other people are going to deny your protagonist things over the course of the story, and it won't always be due to a menacing plot. A rival mom at school could cause trouble, or someone up for the same promotion. That on-the-edge-of-evil magic student might be pushed over the edge and turn on your protagonist. What types of people are in positions to hinder your protagonist?
(More on non-antagonist bad guys here)
3. What types of people are commonly found in the world/situation/city/job/environment your story is set in?
If your story revolves around a police detective in a city, you'll know right away the types of folks she'll likely come into contact with. Same if he's a rancher in Montana. People with roles in the world can bring valuable information or insight to your protagonist, and can make great secondary characters. Think about the people your protagonist will come into contact with and if any of them are worth keeping around.
(More on why the protagonist needs friends here)
4. Who has the power?
Some folks are going to be in charge. Maybe it's your protagonist, maybe it's not. But those people will be able to affect your protagonist's goals and life in all kinds of ways, even if they're not actively trying. There's a good chance your antagonist is going to come from this pool of folks.
5. Who are the victims?
Somebody is getting a raw deal somewhere. There's a good chance your protagonist falls into this category, or maybe someone they know or care about. Even if they're not part of this group, they might have strong feelings about them and their situation. A lot of plot can come from people being victimized.
(Jody Hedlund on how not to create plastic characters here)
6. Who are the wild cards?
You always have that group that is capable of anything--good and bad. You might even have some inkling of who these folks are, as they often have some ability the protagonist needs in the story. A power, a secret, access to something or someone. Plot will often turn on these people.
If you don't know who any of these people are at the start, don't fret. I do minimal character work before I start a story, because seeing how my characters develop is part of the fun for me. I learn about them as I write. But this works for me because I do heavy world building and plotting first, so I force myself to make them make the choices that define them. Maybe you prefer to develop the people first and then see how the world develops around them. Both are viable ways to plan a novel.
Many writers swear by interviewing their characters. I'll admit this isn't a technique I use (I'm a plot first kinda gal), but it's a great way to get to know your characters without having a plot color your answers. Juliette Wade did a wonderful post about this with some awesome questions to ask.
When you ask questions of your characters, try to look beyond the physical traits. While it's good to know their eye and hair color, where they were born, or what they do for a living, just knowing the "what" doesn't tell you how they'll react to a situation. Unless those traits have reasons behind them.
Like the brown-hair girl who dyes her hair red because she loves to be the center of attention.
Or the red head who dyes her hair brown because she hates being the center of attention.
Questions that shape personality will also help you shape plot. Because those two girls will do different things in the same situation. So look for interview questions that answer why. Like...
- What events affected the way the protagonist feels about something important to the story?
- What were their past relationships like? (with a variety of people)
- What's the worst thing to ever happen to them and how did that change them?
- What's the best thing to happen and how did that change them?
- What is their biggest fear? Why?
- What's the worst thing they ever did? How did that affect them?
- What do they hope no one finds out about them?
How much time do you spend creating your characters?