As I mentioned in my last post, knowing exactly how much to brainstorm when it comes to character building can be a question mark. How deeply you need to plan depends on the character’s role and importance, and the writer’s own comfort zone. Obviously a main character is going to need more development than a secondary character or a walk on.
This is why we build a role guide into our Character Builder. It contains suggestions on what to plan based on a character’s importance in the story and relationship to the protagonist. That way, no matter what the person’s role is (a mentor, sidekick, love interest, or someone else), you’ll know what details will come into play in the story.
The Character Builder is incredibly powerful, and if you use it in full, you’ll be able to dig into backstory, personality, emotions, motivation and more. While secondary characters they might not need a full workup, the biggest players in a story (the Protagonist, Antagonist, Love Interest, and Villain) will. Let’s look at what the Role Guide suggests writers should know about each.
As the center of your story, a protagonist requires the deepest level of planning, especially since they will have an arc to follow as events unfold. An exploration of their backstory (including painful past wounds and the fears attached to them) will give you the information you need to accurately write their behavior and emotions in the story, and supply the reasons (internal motivation) why they feel driven to achieve the story goal (outer motivation).
Personality is another big factor, because traits show readers what makes them likeable, unique, and worthy. A character’s negative qualities and poor coping mechanisms humanize them and represent what they must overcome if they are to succeed in the story.
You’ll want to plan their appearance and the aspects of their daily life that will be part of the story, plus know their job and talents as these may showcase skills that could play into the story and help the character achieve their goal.
The protagonist, more so than any other character, must be developed enough to carry the weight of the story. Investing in brainstorming process gives you a clear understanding of who this character is, what they want most, what motivates them, and which internal challenges (the lie, fear, and fatal flaw) they will need to overcome to be successful.
In many stories, the level of planning needed for a love interest is similar to that of the protagonist. What draws the two together will impact not only the story line but shed light on the protagonist’s insecurities, fears, and unmet needs while indicating what sort of inner growth is necessary. When choosing how much to plan, first consider the importance of the romance: Is it the primary plot or a subplot? Then ask yourself: How big is the love interest’s role? The more important a character is to the story, the more you will need to plan.
If their role is significant, they will have their own goals, fears, and reasons for what they do (that may be completely different than those driving the main character). You will want to brainstorm the same areas as you would the protagonist, acting as though the love interest is the main character.
If the love interest has an arc of their own (and many do), it’s especially important to know their backstory, including any wounding events. Behavior and emotional range are also important to define in a push-and-pull story line, as readers must believe that the characters’ actions and choices are logically grounded. When it is time to dismantle whatever negative friction is keeping them apart, this too must be handled in a way that ties back to both the protagonist’s and love interest’s inner motivation and the internal growth they have achieved.
An antagonist is the force (a rival, enemy, competitor, etc.) that opposes your protagonist, standing in the way of their goal. As such, they play a big role in the story. If your antagonist is a person (as opposed to an element, like nature or society) they will almost certainly have a mission or agenda of their own, which means they’ll have a character arc. In this case, they require deep planning—the same as a protagonist—starting with their backstory. You especially want to to capture any critical details about how their skills, connections, assets or knowledge will obstruct the main character.
It’s important to be clear on this character’s motivation as understanding what drives the antagonist means the difference between a flat character and one that is credible. Why are they opposing the hero or heroine? Also when you plan their personality, have some of this character’s traits and morals clash with the protagonist’s. Their strengths, along with their talents and skills, can also help to make them a real threat, forcing the protagonist to work harder to win (if this is your intent).
Another important piece of information to know is the character’s fatal flaw. If the protagonist succeeds, it means that the antagonist’s fatal flaw will be their downfall. This is the most likely scenario. This information is equally important if your antagonist is going to win. Both characters will have a fatal flaw, but rather than the antagonist’s getting the best of him, the protagonist’s will be his undoing, resulting in a failed arc.
A villain is different than an antagonist in the sense that there is an element of evil or specific intent to hurt. They are not merely competing with the protagonist for something or trying to prevent them from achieving a goal that clashes with their own; they actively wish to do them harm. Understanding why requires digging around in this character’s dark places and the history the two characters share. Spend a good amount of time sifting through this character’s backstory, as the villain’s darkness will be rooted in a past wounding event (or events). Whatever happened has warped how they see the world—especially how they view the protagonist. There will be an element of blame (deserved or not) directed toward the protagonist as a reason for the animosity.
Brainstorm this character as you would an antagonist or protagonist, as the deeper you go, the more realistic and credible a villain will feel. To avoid an evil-for-the-sake-of-evil-type villain, readers need to understand why such hatred for the protagonist exists. To write this effectively, you as the writer must first understand it yourself—both where it comes from and how to show it through the villain’s emotions and behavior.
If the protagonist is to prevail in your story, the villain must lose. If this is the case, pay close attention to the villain’s fatal flaw, as this will tie in to the outcome and be part of the their undoing.
Character planning sometimes takes time but knowing a character and their motivations deeply means we can write their actions, choices and decisions with authenticity.
And here’s a tip – if you use the Character Builder, make sure to plot according to the Character Arc Blueprint this tool will create. That way the character’s inner journey will perfectly mirror their outer one, and you’ll build a powerful story where every piece seems to click into place!
The Character Builder Walkthrough
Want to see planning recommendations for secondary characters like the Mentor, Sidekick, Friend & others? Find them here.
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.