If you’ve ever worked with me, either freelance or at Carina, you know that I am all about character. Characters are the enactors of your plot, so I believe you need to make sure you spend a good chunk of time developing, nurturing, and understanding the people whose story you’re writing—because let’s be honest, it is very much their story.
Setups are the reader’s introduction to the character (or characters) who will be enacting the premise you’ve sold to them, and so, you need to make sure your setup starts with that quintessential character moment that shows who the characters are, what they want, and most importantly, what they need (the implicit internal goal).
But while it’s easy to brainstorm ways you can torture your character and mold them into their end form, it’s not always easy to identify the opening character moment (it’s kind of a chicken or egg problem).
So I wanted to give you a process that will help you narrow down that opening moment by doing a little character work.
Step 1: Write a Protagonist Character Sketch
Whether you’re still in the process of brainstorming your book, or you are revising it, I always think it’s a good idea to start your exploration of the opening character moment with a good character sketch.
A good character sketch will not only help you collate the information about your character’s physical traits, general biodata (e.g. their occupation, denomination, etc.), and their personality (their preferences, beliefs, and all the things that influence how they will behave), but it will also include information on:
- Their backstory
- The character’s beliefs & attitudes
- The internal problem or crisis they will face
- How they will grow over the course of the book
It’s in the interactions of the above areas that your quest for the most effective character moment begins, because in the information that answers the above questions about the character lies your understanding of their character arc.
The setup is where we begin to shape the characters’ arcs, so in order to make sure that we are crafting or revising them correctly we have to make sure we’re taking all of what we know about the characters (i.e. what is already written) and make sure that their start point is both realistic (which answers: could this character actually change in this way after experiencing these events?) and feels authentic (i.e. would the character actually change this way?).
Hold on. It’ll make sense at the end of this post. I promise.
Step 2: Identify Your Character’s Main Negative Emotion State
No matter your writing process, whether you start with a plot idea or a specific character you want to write, there is one thing it all hinges upon. Feelings.
Now, I know a lot of my author friends hate that word, but there is no escaping it. It always comes down to feelings, because that’s what makes the story feel real (see what I did there? Feelings).
Your character’s emotions should be in everything they do and say because that’s what is going to make them feel real to the reader. Your reader might have never been in that particular situation, but if they can imagine the feelings that the character is experiencing, then you’ve got them hook, line, and sinker.
So when it comes to the character moment, we want the reader to empathize with the POV character. We can get to know them later, but first, we must emotionally connect to them before their experiences and story become important to us.
The best and easy way is to show your character in a situation that has big, negative feelings—for them. What is negative to your character versus the reader is so subjective. Different lives, different problems. But you just have to make sure that the negative emotion for your character makes sense for them (more on this in Step 4).
Identifying the character’s main negative emotion(s) is part of working out their internal arc. It’s the thing you want to (re)solve by the end of the book, so the character ends the book better off—emotionally. And if you’re writing romance, resolving these negative internal feelings and beliefs will often remove the emotional barrier to their romance.
So really put some thought into what is your character’s big negative emotion. If you need help coming up with ideas what your protagonist’s main negative emotion is, check out this list.
Step 3: Identify the Secondary Characters Most Likely to Evoke that Emotion or Put Them in a Situation Where that Emotion is Inevitable
Your characters aren’t living alone. They go to work, have family (bio or found), have neighbors, checkout people, etc. They might feel alone, but they aren’t.
This step is all about identifying the secondary character(s), the person in the protagonist’s social environment (both in the past and present), who is potentially the source of their negative emotion state. The mean boss who makes going to work painful. The nosey aunt who makes going home for the holidays annoying AF (because you know she’s going to ask, “Another Christmas alone, dear? Honestly, it’s like you want to end up alone.”).
This person is the antithesis of the awesome friend group you’ve been dying to write. They are the bane of the character’s existence because they bring trouble. And feelings. Bad feelings.
I wouldn’t necessarily call this secondary character your protagonist’s nemesis (it isn’t all that deep), but they’re definitely that person who, despite their (supposedly) good intentions, keeps putting the POV character in a situation (i.e. a repeated conversation, a workplace environment, a GD situationship) that will have the protagonist acting all kinds of verklempt and making stupid decisions later on in the story.
Step 4: Increase Conflict by Looking at the Setting/Place and Relationship Dynamics to Identify Stakes that Constrain the Protagonist’s Reaction
This step is so, so, so important because I think this is the one step a lot of authors don’t think about (and what ends up frustrating the reader the most). We as humans hate experiencing negative emotions. We suck at it, and TBH, I’m not mad we suck at it, because I too don’t like them, and being a low-key hedonist is a way better option.
But when it comes to your characters, you need to have an explanation that you can give to the reader as to why a character would “choose” to remain in a situation that is the source of all the negative feelings in their life. You need to give them stakes of some kind.
Note, I say “choose” because it isn’t necessarily a voiced or conscious weigh up between the (limited) benefits of the situation versus the emotional liberation the character could have if they removed themselves from the circumstances. It’s more subtle than that. But to an outsider (i.e. the reader) it will seem like an easily escapable situation because they are still getting to know the character and their circumstances.
This is where you, as the author, have to convince and/or show the reader that, that “choice” isn’t a choice for that character because…reasons.
Now those reasons come in many forms—fear of the unknown, thinking it’s better to have something over nothing, self-esteem issues, etc. The human condition will always provide you with a compelling why. You just need to make sure that the reason makes sense for the character you’re writing.
This is where you refer to your character sketch, particularly looking at the backstory section, to see what in the character’s past has created the belief or belief system that rationalizes their subconscious “choice” to stay in the situation that is causing them distress.
Backstory is what substantiates the character’s thoughts, beliefs, skills, experiences, etc. It gives the reader enough information for the story, the character, and the character’s decisions and feelings to make sense, and often answers questions.
Comb that backstory for the explanation of why the character believes that they are in that situation or that they are deserving of the negative emotions the situation brings them. It’s basically the character’s trigger for that negative emotional response. And if you haven’t got the backstory on lock yet, I definitely recommend checking out The Emotional Wound Thesaurus.
Step 5: Write 2 – 4 Scenes that Meet the Above Criterion
Hopefully, as you are writing your character sketch or reading this post, you’re getting tons of ideas for your opening character moment.
A good character moment should make your reader understand your POV character(s). They should know their name, age, physical appearance, etc., but they should also see the character’s personality (i.e. the kind of person they are) in some kind of action that showcases their internally based conflict (i.e. the thing that’s their current source of unhappiness or problems).
I highly recommend you write 2 – 4 scenes that meet the above criterion to really get to know your character better, but also get a feel for who would make the best and most natural source of all evil (i.e. antagonist) for your character. We don’t want to be overwhelmed with too many baddies. So finding that one baddie in your character’s life who motivates your character’s internal change is a big deal.
And if you’re not sure which one “fits” ask your beta readers and your critique partners! Ask them which scenario make them empathize and connect with your character the most!
You can also watch this interview I did with Mary Calmes for more tips and ideas for narrowing down on that opening character moment.