Populating Your Story (Characters, Part 1)

As you write the logline and pitch, characters begin to appear. In fact, your idea might have originated from a character that grabbed you and wouldn’t let go. However it takes more than an initial idea to bring a character to life.

My first step in this process is very simple: I identify the main characters by role and give them names and ages.

Roles

I start by thinking about the roles in the story. I need a protagonist. I need an antagonist. Maybe I need a spouse or a kid. Maybe I need a best friend or a boss. Or a parent. I also think in terms of main characters and secondary characters and tertiary characters.

Main character is not a synonym for protagonist. Although a protagonist undoubtedly is a main character, not every main character is a protagonist. The protagonist is the character who has the most to lose and whose decisions drive the action.

Harry Potter had three main characters — Harry, Ron, and Hermione. It had ONE protagonist: Harry. Same with Twilight. Main characters — Bella, Edward, and Jacob. One protagonist: Bella.

In the book I’m querying, my protagonist is named Charm. His sister and mother are other main characters. They each have character arcs and stakes, but Charm is the one driving the story.

I have several strong secondary characters too. Charm’s nephew and the titular dog. Also Charm’s friends, the trainers who help them, and the antagonist(s).

Knowing the roles helped me identify characters I needed to create. To become well-rounded, “real” people, they needed far more. I started by giving them names and ages.

Names and ages

I struggle to find the right names. I want names appropriate for the place and the time. Ages are important because popular names change over time.

I also want the names to be easy to remember and hard to confuse. Recently, I read a book with Kenny, Kennedy, Kel, and Kelsey. Enjoyed the book, but damn.

My personal guidelines include:

  • Start each name with a different letter of the alphabet.
  • Watch the endings — “Ellie” and “Kellie” start with different letters, but they sound a lot alike.
  • No, twins don’t need to have cutesy similar names. That’s hard on readers even if it’s common in real life!
  • Use baby lists from the year the character was born to find a name that was used but not uber common.
  • The names of important characters should be meaningful. Research name meanings. Tie the name into the theme. In my current WIP, some characters have biblical names, and the biblical stories behind those names tie into the characters’ roles in the story.

Conclusion

At the end of this step, I have a list of main characters and a few secondary ones. I know their names and ages. They’re starting to take shape in my head.

In future posts, I’ll explain how I develop these names into full characters.

characters

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