Friday, July 11

Wanted: One Character Willing to Work With No Questions Asked

Molly Quinn, the perfect Aylin
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

For a lot of writers, the character comes to them first. They hear this person’s voice in their head, dream about them, and then they find their story. For me, it’s different. I usually find the problem first, then find someone whose life I can make miserable.

Because of this, my characters rarely start a novel fully developed. I usually only know the bare bones of their past, how they got to be where they are, what they like and dislike. The plot is the crucible I toss them into to get to know them. How they react to problems is what tells me what I need to know to write them.

Because of this process, my characters start out a bit flat in the first draft. They talk a lot, act a lot, but don’t think about the whys until it matters and I have to figure them out. Then their internalization starts pouring from them and I discover the past they were hiding, the fears they never told me they had, and the dreams they think about when they aren’t running for their lives.

What makes this work especially well for me, is that I'm forced to develop the characters as they interact with the story world and plot, so the motivations feel more relevant to what's going on. There's an interesting circle feeding off itself--the characters act to drive the plot and the plot forces me to figure out why the characters are acting that way, which further helps develop the plot and so on, and so on.

(Here are five other ways to help develop a character)

A good example of this process is the character, Aylin, from my teen fantasy trilogy, The Healing Wars. Aylin had almost no background at all when she first appeared on the page in The Shifter. I knew Nya (my protagonist) needed a best friend who had a job that put her in contact with lots of people. So Nya first encounters Aylin on the street in front of…

And I needed a place. What job could Aylin hold in this fantasy world that would put her on the street talking to people? I made her a barker at a show house, a tavern/theater/concert hall mix where the rich frequented. She danced outside (so now I learned she was graceful) and called to folks passing by, trying to get them to come inside and spend their money (so now I knew she was a people person, and a bit of a flirt).

And that was all for a while, but from that moment on she had this personality. That was enough for Aylin to play her sidekick role.

As I wrote her, she developed into the voice of reason for Nya (and I learned Aylin was practical). It wasn’t a conscious choice, I just  had a very impulsive Nya getting into trouble, and I needed someone to play the other side to show the options and consequences of the plot. Purely mechanical really. Nya needed someone to talk to and bounce ideas off of. That was Aylin. Since I didn’t want to sound preachy, she was supportive (usually) of Nya’s plans, even when she was worried about them (and thus I learned Aylin was non-judgmental and loyal).

(Here's a quick tip to discover what your character cares about)

Although I was getting a good sense of who she was by the middle of the first draft, I still didn’t know much about her past. She was an orphan like Nya, but I didn’t know how her parents died or if she even had any other family. Eventually, I reached a part of the story where Nya needed someone to confront her about something less than ethical she was considering in the book. Aylin's reason to be against it had to be personal so it didn’t come off as preachy on my part.

Enter Aylin’s past.

Nya was dealing with the pain merchants in this scene (black-market healers who buy pain from people), so I knew Aylin’s issue had to come from there. In my world building, I’d already established that the pain merchants were notorious for healing someone, but not fully healing them, so it’s dangerous to go to them. Aylin’s mother died by going to a pain merchant and not being fully healed (and now I knew Aylin hated the pain merchants, that she watched her mother die and couldn’t do anything to stop it).

(Here are more ways to develop your characters)

But I also learned more from that small bit of history. Aylin had already developed as a happy person. She’s upbeat, optimistic, always sees the good in people. How could she have that outlook after what had happened to her? This contradiction made her all the more interesting, and so I learned how Aylin’s practicality encompassed her entire life, and how she did what she had to do to survive, and didn’t let anyone—or anything—bring her down. Giving in to the sadness was losing. To beat the people who had hurt her so badly, she refused to fall into despair. This core element of her character allowed me to finally know the real her and how she’d react to anything I threw at her.

By the end of the first draft, Aylin was a flesh-out character ready for revisions to take advantage of what I now knew about her, and all my characters. She’s stayed true to herself all along, but has grown and changed the same as Nya.

Quite an accomplishment for a gal who was nothing more than “Nya’s best friend” when I first created her.

Things You Might Consider When Creating Your Own Characters

If the idea of developing characters as you write appeals to you, here are some questions you might consider as you draft a scene:

1. How does this character react to stressful situations? Some people panic, others get very calm, and some shut down entirely. Odds are you're going to be putting your characters into stressful situations all novel, so knowing how they react is a solid step in figuring out who they are.

2. Why do they react that way? Perhaps there's a reason they always panic, or never panic. They could have previous experience in emergencies, or they lived a pleasant, sheltered life and never learned how to deal with problems.

3. How do they approach their problems? Odds are a "look at the problem from every angle" type of character isn't going to suddenly run into a situation without thinking things through. They have a process for dealing with things and that will likely be evident in multiple facets of their personality. 

4. How do these two traits (handling stress and dealing with problems) affect the rest of this character's personality? If you have a panicky character who reacts impulsively out of fear, that person is not going to be the one volunteering to storm the castle to save the day. They'll more likely retreat, or try a cautious approach that creates the least amount of risk.

5. How do they feel about the people around them? A character who likes people and cares what happens to total strangers will react differently than one who never got a break from anybody and prefers to fend for herself. Personal relationships can affect choices, as can opinions on people in general.

Characters don't have to be fully fleshed-out people before you start a draft (though you can certainly do that if you prefer). Sometimes, a more interesting character is created by solving the contradictions in personality that develop as a character tries to fill a story role. Be true to t he character, but don't be afraid to let the character be true to the story during that first draft.

Do you develop your characters before, during, or after a first draft? Share your process!

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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Originally published during the Blue Fire blog tour on Beth Revis's blog.


  1. Oh, Aylin is one of my favorite characters and that photo is just right!

    My stories always come together that way too, story first and then the people to torture in it. I'd love to try doing it the other way some time, to see what happens :)

  2. Wow, that's a great process. Like you, I tend to know little of my characters when they first appear. I learn more and more as their actions reveal them to me.

  3. I'm glad to know that I'm not the only one who doesn't know everything about my characters before I start writing. I'm about half way through my first draft and I'm still learning things about some of my major characters.

    Thanks for the great blog!

  4. This was great!

    I love Aylin. I always want to have these pretty, graceful dancer character, but I tend to over-describe them. But the way you described Aylin is perfect. I love her character, and it's cool to see the "behind the scenes" stuff on her.

  5. Ditto Elizabeth -- it's fascinating to see how Aylin developed.

  6. Great post! Most of my characters are this way for me as well. Every once in a while I'll have a side character that pops into my head fully formed. But for the most part, they serve some aspect of the plot, just as you described.

  7. Wen: You should! I actually have a story when the character came to me first, and I've been trying to come up with his story for the last year or so :) Hopefully I'll find it soon, because I like the little guy.

    Paul: Nice to see another story first person :) I see so many character first writers out there. :)

    Mark: Most welcome! I always learn a ton about my characters in the first and even second drafts. Some of them hid things from me until the second book.

    Elizabeth: Aw, thanks! Aylin has turned into one of my favorite characters.

    Megan: Thanks! I'm glad that I remembered so clearly the turning points in her development.

    M.E.: Oh cool! And here I was thinking I was in the minority when it turns out tons of writers do this. I guess it's more balanced than I thought :)

  8. An informative post. I'll bear this in mind when I write my first novel; I'm inclined to link these five to my main protagonist's main goal.

  9. It's nice to know that I'm not the only writer who thinks of plot/story problems first. For my next book, the one I'm marinating on, I already have a story problem. Now I need to figure out who will narrate the story and why. This was a timely post for me, Janice. Thanks!