Once you have the initial idea for a character, the process of developing that character into a complex, real personality begins, and the starting point is always research.
The general context of the character involves filling in all the facts about the where, when, why, and how this person exists in the world of your story.
General Context—Stage One
In the first stage of general research, it’s always a good idea to begin with what you already know. Personal experiences and observations can be a launching pad for exploring the character’s circumstances.
Perhaps your hometown can serve as the setting, specific details serving to enhance that world. You know the way the air smells, when the sun shines, and how the locals interact.
Garrison Keiller – creator and host of the live radio variety show “A Prairie Home Companion” (1974-present), which inspired the 2006 motion picture of the same name – is no stranger to using his hometown roots. Keiller, a native of Minnesota, broadcasts “A Prairie Home Companion” every Saturday from 5pm-7pm out of the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota. One of Keiller’s most popular storytelling segments is “News from Lake Wobegon,” a weekly report from Keillor’s fictitious hometown of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota: “The little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve…where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” Throughout the segment, Keiller pokes fun at central Minnesota’s large Scandinavian-American and German-American communities that he grew up with.
Like Keiller, using details from your own personal experiences will help you create more truthful and dynamic characters. Observing the people you interact with everyday, their physicality, emotions and humor will also help you to write unique, vibrant voices for your both your main and supporting characters.
If your protagonist has three best friends, why not use your own friends as seeds of inspiration? Understanding the people you surround your character with will help you develop believable character actions and reactions within your story.
For more on the four basic areas of general research, read Character Creation: General Context—Stage Two (coming soon).
Michael Schilf, co-founder of TheScriptLab.com, is an acclaimed screenwriter and highly sought after script consultant, with nearly twenty years of experience teaching screenwriting at the collegiate level. His latest work, a memoir, The Sins of My Father, hits bookstores later this year. Visit his blog for insights on story, character, and structure, and follow him on Twitter.