You guide your main character through the heavy door and shut the door behind you. Each of you sits down on opposite sides of a metal table. “Now,” you click a pen and begin to write on a notepad. “Who are you, and what are you doing in my story?”
Who are you?
The person sitting across from you cowers. Or glares. Or smirks. Or rages. “Well?” You tap your fingers. “Answer the question.”
If I were to ask you to introduce yourself, you’d probably start with your name, your occupation or school, and where you live. All those things are important things that make up who you are. But I wouldn’t really know you until I know what you want.
The same is true of your characters. Even if they have a clearly-defined personality, your characters aren’t people until they want something badly. For Elizabeth Bennet, the thing she wanted was to be married and independent of her family. Victor Frankenstein wanted to be able to bring the dead to life. Harry Potter wanted a family.
What your character wants badly is going to determine all of the decisions they make, big or small. If you don’t know what your character wants, it might be time to sit them down and ask, “Who are you?”
What are you doing here?
“So what do you think you’re doing here?” You lean in and lay one arm across the table. “Do you expect me to just give you what you want?”
Your character could just happen to fall into the story when it was about to happen. Or the story is happening because she caused it. Either way, the story reveals, challenges, or fulfills your characters’ greatest desires.
Maybe your girl meets a handsome guy and falls heart-first in love. She doesn’t realize it, but maybe she’s looking for stability in the midst of her chaotic life. Everything was changing in her life when she met him, and he was steady. So when tragedy strikes and they feel distant, she struggles to feel safe without him.
What big event starts your story moving? How does it reveal, challenge, or fulfill your characters’ hopes and dreams? How do they feel because of it? Did they want it to happen?
How are you going to act?
“Interesting story,” you say as you lean back in your chair, “but I believe you.” Your character breathes a sigh of relief. “Now, I need to know whose side you’re on. Are you going to help, or make things worse?”
The way your character reacts to the event that sets your story in motion will determine the story’s direction. So how does he react?
Each person – and each character – will react to different emotions as uniquely as a fingerprint. You should know whether they contain their emotions or let them fly. What kinds of things will they say? What will they think? What does their body language look like?
You can map out each character’s emotional fingerprint something like this:
- Happy- Shy smile, plays with hair, focuses entirely on what’s making her happy, full of creativity, likes to paint
- Sad- Avoids other people, doesn’t look people in the eye, hangs head, stares into space
- Excited- Bites lip, abrupt movements, talks more than usual, easily distracted
- Afraid- Faces her fear, speaks slowly and deliberately, trembles, holds eye contact
- Angry- Avoids who or what is making her angry, easily startled, denies that she’s angry, makes sarcastic comments and immediately regrets them
If you know your character this well, your character will respond like a real person in each situation he or she has to face. You can refer back to the emotional fingerprints as you write to keep your scenes steadily moving.
You set down your pen and notepad. “Good. I think I have everything I need now. You’re free to leave.”
Your character obediently walks through the door, but turns around suddenly. “Does this mean you can fix everything now? I don’t have to do this anymore?”
You smile a little. “Oh, of course. You’ll get your happily ever after.” With a smile, your character turns and walks away. “Eventually,” you chuckle.