Main characters go on a ride throughout your story, but they also take the reader for one too. Even though it’s your main characters who experience the trials and tribulations in your book, they are ambassadors to the reader. A reader isn’t going to want to spend 300 pages with someone boring, staid, or flat. Here are some ideas that will help bring your main characters to life.
Backstory versus present story
Most writers know how important backstory is. No matter where in a character’s life your novel begins, they will make choices, be motivated by, and respond to situations based on their life experience. That’s the case because people do this too. Backstory creates motivation, so it is therefore important.
However, backstory can also weigh your novel down. Remember, people are reading about what’s happening to them right now. They want to know what’s next not only what happened before. Make sure that your characters have a present story too.They should act based on what came before but also because of what is occurring presently.
The character of Walter White from AMC’s hit TV show, Breaking Bad, had a great backstory that informed his present story. He was a high school science teacher frustrated that he never found an outlet for his brilliance, which meant he had a chip on his shoulder. He was disrespected at school, as he had been at multiple points in his life, and that drive to finally get recognition for his abilities is what (in my mind) drove his actions throughout all of the seasons.
The writers didn’t spend hours or episodes going over what happened before, but they hinted at it often enough that we got the picture. What really drove it home was seeing how that backstory (frustration over lack of recognition) manifested into Walt becoming a drug kingpin. His initial motivation to close financial gaps for his family metastasized into him wanting to prove to himself that he could outwit law enforcement and any other criminal competitor. Walt’s backstory was a catalyst for what we really wanted to watch: how he dealt with his present story.
Bottom line: certainly give your characters backstory. Just don’t forget to also tell the present story because what’s happening to them starting on page one, or within the first chapter, is what the reader wants to know about.
A good way to zero in on who your main characters are is to think about their attitude. Attitude reveals personality. Attitude requires a backstory. Attitude is intrinsic to character. Attitude can drive story.
Let’s look at the example of Alice from Alice in Wonderland (the Disney movie version). Alice is a WASPY princess, she knows it, and even though she’s a child, she doesn’t have a lot of respect for authority. Alice’s attitude about life sets her on her journey and causes it to continue. If she listened to her nanny, she wouldn’t have followed the White Rabbit in the first place. But Alice has an “okay, whatever” attitude toward others, hence, she takes a trip down the rabbit hole.
Her privileged attitude continues in Wonderland. The Rabbit kept telling her he was late for an important date and didn’t have the time, but she followed him anyway. She stomped away from the irritating Cheshire Cat, the tea party, and ended up in a boatload of trouble with the Queen of Hearts. Why? Alice does what Alice wants, including around a psycho violent queen.
Attitude is everything and here it informed her backstory, which caused her to act in her present story.
I’ve had to learn the hard way, from not doing this, that agency is the key factor in making a protagonist three-dimensional. Your characters need to make choices and live with those choices. Action and events can’t just happen to and around them; they must join the world you create for them.
When characters make choices and take action, the reader sees what kind of person they are. Are they reluctant? Do they charge in headlong? When they’re up against a wall, how do they react? Action does two things at once: it reveals character and it drives action.
There are lots of boxes you need to check for your character: they need a fitting name, we want to see them under stress, they need backstory, etc. But the best way to show character is by anchoring those revealing moments to plot points. Character and plot shouldn’t be separate but two threads of the same braid.