Finally. Character. (By the way, I've heard it's usually not a good idea to use the word "finally" in a story. Hm…)
We've all heard the term "Mary-Sue," but I'm not going to talk about it because I know that, no matter what I say, half my readers will think I'm wrong. Search Mary-Sue if you're really curious. Basically, it's a flat character – for whatever reason.
Many different people have many different views on how to fix the flat character problem. Mostly they include giving your character flaws. And this is often interpreted to be, "Well, he's fourteen and can beat up a mob informant, but he's terrible at spelling, so he's very deeply-developed."
Some people start building a character with the name. I don't do that. There's no specific reason, I just don't. Names are very tricky things and I, frankly, don't know the first thing about good names and choosing one. Let me just say that stories with names like Leighton Sparkles, Maea Valor, Jake Eagle, Haeylee Glimmer, etc. tend to be the kind of stories that I would love to filter out of the "Just In" section, because they're never well-written. The problem is that they're written by twelve year old girls who name their characters after "cute" baby names, not names that actual high schoolers who are supposedly in love would really have. I'm not telling you what to name or not to name your characters, but it's important to be aware of the clichés at hand.
Now, your character needs a motivation. By motivation, I mean something that your character is actively striving after. That's what I tell the people I beta for. Many times, stories will have characters that are pulled through the plot by the winds of, um, fluff…? and could easily be replaced with, say, a cardboard cut-out of Edward Cullen. Even plot-driven stories have characters who are actively striving for something. Jason Bourne is desperate to find his identity again, and he is willing to do really stupid stuff to achieve that. Your character's goal (which s/he is actively striving for, may I remind you) needs to be something big enough to force them to do stupid things like get chased around by the FBI with nothing but a ripped t-shirt and your large muscles that just happen to be sticking through the sleeves. I may want dinner right now, but I don't want it badly enough to go make it myself (Mom's cooking!), so me sitting on the couch thinking about dinner is not a story. I am not actively striving, and let's be honest, dinner doesn't really matter than much to me at this point in time.
And thus we come to stakes (and I don't mean steaks, which I figured I should clarify now that we're all thinking about dinner). Raising the stakes means raising your reader's interest in the story. Raising the stakes means making your character's goal so important to him/her that the reader understands why they would do stupid stuff to achieve that goal (do you remember the Big Question?). So all you have to do to raise the stakes is ask your character why they're actively striving after that B+ on that math test. Is it so he can impress a girl? Is it so he can get out from his parents very watchful eyes? Is it so he has a better shot of getting into college? And of course, answering that question will bring up more questions. Why are his parents watching him so closely in the first place? Did he flunk seventh grade? Did he flunk just one test? Why does that matter to them? Are they both Harvard graduates (with honors) and want their son to follow in their footsteps? Or are they both flunk-outs themselves, and they don't want their son to have the same fate? There are lots of possibilities, and lots of different questions to go with.
We raise stakes so that the story contains tension. Every scene in a story needs tension. More on that later. If I remember.
Back to motivations. The way I see it, a good motivation will throw your flat-character-worries out the window. Humans are not the most sparkling creation in the world (let's admit it, we're pretty awful), and a realistic motivation is going to erase the "perfection problem." Little Johnny may want to "help the community," but isn't it really because he wants to get recognition from his parents and school and so on and so forth? Big Johnny may want to "help the community," but isn't it really because he wants to impress his parole officer? There's always a selfish motive in there somewhere, and it's a writer's job to bring it to the surface. Hidden motivations behind what seem to be good also add more intrigue to the story; more depth to the character.
Selfishness does not necessarily mean "I want that candy bar!" A selfish motivation simply means that it's very, very rare that anyone will do anything good for anyone if it doesn't have any impact on themself (which spellcheck says is not a word…). Sorry if you're one of those "man is basically good" people; read my essay Messily Murder Mary Who? Even doing something out of love can be boiled down to a selfish motivation. You'll do things for your significant other because it makes you feel bad to see them feeling bad, right? Fine, call me a cynic. All I'm saying is that a selfless motivation is going to get you some Mary-Sue accusations, whatever those mean in the first place.
Survival is not an acceptable goal to be actively striving after. One of the only counter-examples I can think of is The Hunger Games, which may not have a sterling reputation among writers who want to sound like professionals, but it is a good example of this. Survival works in THG because it is, in fact, something that Katniss has to actively strive for – if she doesn't, she's going to get skewered through the stomach, just like Rue. But even her sole survival becomes not her only goal. She also wants to save Peeta, which may or may not be an act of love, but we do get the idea that if she let him die, she'd never be able to forgive herself, so it's a selfish motive. Survival generally doesn't work because it takes passive striving to accomplish. It may prompt a character to do stupid things every now and then, but it's mainly a defense against the odds. Survival is not active striving, which, if you haven't caught on by now, is what we're after. A lot of people think that survival is an acceptable goal for the main plot of a book. It is not.
Some people outline their characters to the nth degree. I most certainly do not. For example, in my current project (which I'm not going to name because this is not a self-promotion), I have four main characters. I did not sit down and say to myself, "Four characters. Go." One of them had been sitting in my head for a long time, and I don't remember how I got there. One of them was inspired by a scoffing remark I made at a Taylor Swift song. One of them came to me (figuratively, not literally) in the shower. The final one is a cheat because she originally acted first and foremost as a love interest for one of the other characters, but that is a terrible thing to do, so do as I say and not as I do, okay? I will disclaimer and say that I think she is the weakest character in the bunch. Once you get the general idea, you know what their main goal is. To fit in, to not fit in, to be smarter than the world, to be like Taylor Swift (respectively). Now, I'm not really sure how the rest of this works, because for me, it just happens. The little details fill themselves in as I write and put the characters in situations that make them uncomfortable (another wonderful way to create tension; more on that later).
Here's one important question to ask: how does your intended resolution of the plot solve or contribute to solving your character's goal/desire? And let me say, even if you're staunchly against outlines like yours truly, you should still have a resolution in mind. What's going to happen in chapter 32 out of 33? (The last chapter is usually wrapping everything else up, after all.) This is only because you need to know how it's going to fix your characters.
Here's another important question that goes along with that: how will your character change? Everybody has heard this question. Essentially, your character may not be the same person that they were at the beginning of the story. It's illegal. If they are the same person, we'll go back to using the cardboard cut-out of Edward Cullen and save you the trouble.
At this point in the process is when I pick a name for my characters. I pick a name that suits them – based on their background or subtleties of their personality or whatever I'm in the mood for. There are some obvious rules: one of my characters was born in Japan, so she clearly has to have a Japanese name (solution? Use my Japanese friend's middle name. Ha!). One of my characters comes from a religious background, so I gave him a name from the Bible. The other two names just sounded nice. The most important thing to remember is that if your character has a bizarre name, they'd darned well better have a good reason for it and a good reaction to it – whether they think it's cool or lame or what. If you're writing modern-day stuff, it's a good idea not to name your college student "Leighton" because that's what people started naming their babies two years ago, not twenty. If it's historical fiction, "Leighton" again is probably not the best name to use. Neither is "Ashley." If it's fantasy, you have a little more freedom; just make sure the name is easily pronounceable. People skim over words they don't know how to say, which is only a handicap to your story (or they're like my cousin, who, when he read Percy Jackson, we literally had no idea what he was talking about because he had alternate names for everyone – "Brackenist" instead of "Beckendorf," for example). The most important thing to remember is to not make your names super obvious (take Bella Swan) or super bizarre (Hermelinda Gabrenas, thanks to the Random Name Generator) without having a darned good reason that you can convince suspicious readers like me that it's worth it.
I don't think there's much else that I can say on this subject, seeing as I already mentioned that I don't know how I do the rest of it. Simply: know your character's desire (remember, the one they're actively striving after?), and know how the plot is going to somehow solve that desire.
Note: desire is not the same thing as problem. Problem is going to be the next chapter.
(Author's note: so, did I get the whole actively striving point across well enough? Haha... ~not Ross)