When you start a new novel or short story, sometimes it can be hard to tell your reader the right things about your characters to make them care enough to keep reading, without bogging everything down with an overwhelming amount of detail. Sometimes, it can be helpful to work out a few things before you start. Think about your character’s defining moment in the story. What is the biggest dilemma they will face? What one thought or piece of dialogue encapsulates the character’s role within your narrative? Write out this scene first, then you will be able to pull from it to plant seeds (a.k.a. foreshadowing) of this idea or conflict from the very beginning.
Think about defining moments in your own life, when you have had to make hard choices that put you on a certain path or set half-formed moral boundaries down in stone. What you found out about yourself may have surprised you. A 2006 article from the Harvard Business Review explains the difference between an ethical dilemma and a defining moment: “An ethical decision typically involves choosing between two options: one we know to be right and another we know to be wrong. A defining moment, however, challenges us in a deeper way by asking us to choose between two or more ideals in which we deeply believe.” Just because your characters are fictional, that doesn’t mean they should get off any easier.
While a defining moment can come at a number of different points in your story (and in a longer work, your character may face more than one), most plot arcs lead toward a dark moment, or black spot, where the reader should believe that your character may fail. You can amp up the tension by combining the black spot with a defining moment. Give your character the opportunity to have what they think they wanted for the entire story, or to achieve the story goal. They can’t have both. What are they willing to sacrifice?
Want more ideas on creating three dimensional characters, right from the start of your novel? Sign up for Novel Preparation: What to Do Before You Start To Write, a five-session class that will also cover techniques for outlining and creating consistent worlds for your characters to inhabit. Class starts on January 26, so sign up soon by calling (817) 272-2581 or register here.