Finding ideas takes faith in yourself. Eventually, you’ve got to stop searching and start working.

First, write it all down. If you haven’t done this yet, write down everything that is floating around in your head about your story: plot, characters, tone, themes, setting, small details, questions you have for yourself, possible scenes, and so forth.

Now we’re going to zoom in on characters. Some people do plot first; I like to start with characters.

How many is enough?

There is no hard and fast rule about how many characters you’re going to need. If you want someplace to start, I suggest 2-5 main characters.

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Two people gets you a relationship of some kind. Five people gets you a Five-Man Band. It’s easy to keep track of five people.

You can definitely have more than five, but keep in mind that the more people you try to follow, the less time you can spend on each person, and you’re only aiming for 50,000 words.

Your Protagonist

Name

You obviously need a name. Names are notoriously difficult. Try a random name generator, search for names that have a significant meaning, or borrow a name from one of your idols. Keep in mind that names can indicate race as well as gender.

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If you haven’t decided on race yet, but you randomly choose a name like Becky Bush, you’re probably going to start thinking of your protagonist as white.

High Concept

Use a few words to summarize the concept you have for this character. Try to make it distinctive. It should be ironic, funny, or weird. This helps you keep your character consistent and interesting.

[Adjective][Vocation] should do it for most characters.

“Psychic” Private Investigator

Drug Lord Chemistry Teacher

Starfleet’s First Mutineer

High Concept and Trouble are taken from the FATE system role playing game. Read more here and here.

Trouble

Perfect people with easy lives are boring and hard to write about. How is your character flawed? Or, what external force is constantly pressuring them?

Pick something that you can easily use to create tension and keep your character from being able to get what they want. When you’re in the middle of the novel and nothing seems to be happening, you can use your Trouble to get your story rolling again.

Destructively Immature

Dying of Cancer

Universally Despised

Traditionally, this would be a character flaw of some kind and your character would grow and overcome it. You can do that, but you don’t have to. What you do need to do is make sure their life isn’t too easy.

Want

You might not be able to figure this one out until you know more about your plot, but the best characters are self-directed. Characters who don’t want anything get pushed around by the plot or they decide to stay home.

Validation through Attention

Money for my Family  

The Thrill of Discovery

This can be a plot agenda (want to find the missing girl) or something primal (want sex) or kind of a personality thing (want to be noticed).

I’m basing want on generic writing advice.

Care

If you want people to like your protagonist, your protagonist needs to care about somebody or something. This passion makes them endearing and vulnerable.

I care about my best friend Gus.

I care about my family, presumably.

I care about Captain Georgiou.

It doesn’t have to be a person. It can be more abstract, like “I care about finding the truth,” or “I care about my community.”

Skills

You’ll want a sense of what this character can and cannot do. If you’re not careful, they might be able to do everything, and that’s no fun.

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Plus, when you’re really good at something you tend to try and solve every problem the same way (I have a hammer and everything looks like a nail) which can backfire spectacularly.

Charming, perceptive and clever. Terrible at impulse control.

Skills: Chemistry. Unskilled: Street Smarts.

Science genius. Strong moral Center. Poor social skills.

Connections

What people and organizations are in your character’s sphere of influence? Who can they go to for information, resources, or support? Your character doesn’t have to start with any connections, but it’s something I like to track.

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Best friend Gus, girlfriend Juliet, dad Henry, Santa Barbara Police Department....

Lackey Jessie, wife Skyler, lawyer Saul, fixer Mike....

Starfleet, roommate Tilly, rival Saru, mentor Sarek.... 

Your Antagonist

If you have a human antagonist, they deserve as much attention as you’re giving your protagonist. Their workup should be similar, but you can skip Trouble and Skills if you want to, because it doesn’t matter if your antagonist is good at everything. You can also skip care. There are a few extra questions I like to ask specifically about the antagonist.

Transgressions

What kind of unacceptable shit are they up to? Why don’t we like them?

Justification

Why do they think their transgressions are okay, or even morally necessary?

Sacrifice

What have they given up (or what will they give up) in order to further their goals? The tyrannical boss is estranged from his family. The serial killer burned off his fingerprints. The mean popular girl is afraid to try anything that might ruin her perfect image.

Everybody Else

Jot down a name, concept, and want for everybody else.

Carlton Lassiter (Standoffish Senior Detective) wants the kind of respect that comes from status.

Gabriel Lorca (Ruthless Starfleet Captain) wants to win this war at any cost.

That’s it! Don’t spend too long on this. You can fill in the details as you write, and you will probably want to add more characters and move things around once the story gets started.

Action Steps:

  • Write down all your thoughts in a freeform way.
  • Make notes about your protagonist (Name, Concept, Trouble, Want, Care, Skills, Connections) and at least one other character (Name, Concept, Want.)