Wednesday, September 22, 2010

On Characters

There was an interesting discussion on twitter that I would like to bring to your attention. In its most basic form, the discussion was on whether or not stories with a second-chance theme should always result in a happy ending for the character in question. This spawned some discussion on how some individuals hated how a character had to die anyway even if they found redemption.

In turn evolved into a discussion on the question of whether or not writers who coddled their main characters told as powerful of a story as they could.

No. No. No.

The character you love to write and protect is the character many readers may very well end up hating to read about. Strife and conflict are often the heart of the story. In the real world we often do not like to experience these things. They hurt us and make us suffer.

When I read I find myself drawn to the character who struggles and persevere. I am even more enthralled when a character struggles and fails to persevere. When I read, I wish to submerge into a story where the odds are defied even if success is not automatic. It makes the ending all the sweeter.

You damage your story when you protect your main character. Don't do it. Let your character fall. Let your character suffer.

If your character would die in the natural flow of the story, let them go. If you need to get a box of tissues and bawl your eyes out do so. But let them go and allow your story to thrive.

It is very easy to fall into the trap of becoming attached to the character. This is not necessarily a bad thing. However, you should fall into the trap of loving the story. A good character does not make a story. A loved character does not make a story. A good story makes a good character. The advice of character-driven stories is a good one to follow. However, character-driven does not mean spoiled rotten. It really does not mean pamper them.

It means make them the driving forces in your story. But your story is something much bigger than any one character.

When you select your main character, you need to pick the character that is in the thick of things. Don't pick the one you like the best if they are only casually observing the entire book. Do not pick the character that has nothing to do with the conflict. Do not pick the character that does not suffer or struggle for the sake of the story. If you make this error, it is your reader who suffers.

While you may write for your personal enjoyment you should never forget the presence of the reader. While you may give birth to the story, it is the reader that breathes life into it.

It is your main characters which are the vessel for your story's existence. If you think you are clever by having a main character who does nothing at all, chances are the story will suffer for it. It may not happen every time. A talented author -might- be able to break the rules in this regard.

But there are very few observing characters with the charm and inherent ability to be in the right place at the right time as one Watson crafted so diligently by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. There are few authors so blessed in their craft to pull off this tricky skill with success.

There are few readers with the patience to deal with the failures of this type of story.

People do not read out of necessity. They read out of desire to do so. (We will leave school assignments out of this for now. Most people do not go to the bookstore and buy fiction novels for school assignments.)

So where does this leave you?

Here are a few tips for selecting your main character. Answer yes/no to these questions. If the majority of the answers are 'yes', your character is a good candidate to be a main character:

1: Is your character always in the thick of things?
2: Is your character critical to the resolution of the conflict?
3: Does your character cause conflict?
4: Is your character present in the majority of the story?
5: Does your character survive through 3/4ths of the novel?
6: Is the character a 'round' character?*
7: Has your character suffered?
8: Does your character have a likable personality?
9: Does your character have a background and history?
10: Do you care about the character?

* A round character is a well-developed character that defies the stereotypes. A flat character is your cookie-cutter character that serves a purpose and that is that. The stable boy that you see for ten pages is typically a flat character. Frodo from Lord of the Rings would classify as round. 'That Admiral' Lord Vader suffocates at random for getting mouthy would classify as flat.

Of course you do not need to answer 'yes' to every question, but it is a very good idea if almost all of them are yes. These are qualities that tend to make a strong character. Let us take a good look at a well-loved favorite: Harry Potter.

I am strongly confident that Harry would get a ringing 'yes' to all of the above questions. He suffered. He persevered. He was easy to like. (Sure, he whined... but he was still easy to like.) He was written in such a way that I felt it was obvious that Rowling enjoyed writing this character. He was *always* there, always in the thick of things. He caused as many problems as he resolved.

Almost every character that I truly love gets a ringing endorsement on all of these things. The stories that these characters are in are only made that much better for the presence of these characters.

In the previous post I discussed character detailing. In this one, I want you to consider the heart and the soul of the character and not just where they have been.

There is a proverb: What does not kill you makes you stronger.

Let your character be a 'living' example of this. And when they die, let them leave a lasting impression.

That is the least you can do for the people who will read your story. After all, as a writer, it is the reader that you wish to entertain.

I hope this makes you ask a few questions about your characters and their purpose in your stories.

1 comment:

  1. These are very useful observations. It helps to BE a character before creating characters. That way one has a backstory in the process of being human that can be drawn upon while writing about other humans. In sf/f etc there comes the challenge of writing about characters who are not human, but that's another blog post. I think a lot of story is about being imprisoned and escaping. Between those two there's the chase, and sometimes the one being chased turns the tables and becomes the chaser. I really gave some thought to your thesis that
    not all endings must be happy. I do believe the reader deserves an emotional payoff. If the protagonist dies, it can be a worthwhile sacrifice. If the villain dies, he/she can die excruciatingly and with a full load of irony.
    I just discovered this blog and I love it. I need a reader, big time. Consider this a cri de coeur. My SF/F novel, THE GODS OF THE GIFT,
    is a glory but no one has read its current version. Yet. I almost sold it when I was a client of Scott Meredith but I'm glad I didn't.
    It wasn't ready, nor was I.

    Best to you.

    Art Rosch