Action and Plot Devices Can Only Take Your Story So Far…
There are certainly examples of compelling plot lines in which the characters don’t need to be dynamic or anything particularly special. In fact, if you follow the Mono-myth outline by Joseph Campell (I wrote about it here for space.porn) you can be pretty sure that even with flat, non-compelling characters, you’ll have a decent story. That’s because the plot and structure of that outline are so ubiquitous and familiar that audiences care less about the characters, and more about making sure they’re getting the story they expect from that outline.
Some Examples: Action/Plot-Driven Stories
- “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” by Ambrose Bierce. This late nineteenth-century short story is dependent not on characters, but on the plot twist at the end to make the story’s point.
- “War,” by Jack London. London’s protagonist has no name, no identifiable country, nor even recognizable setting. The entire story hinges on the irony of the story’s situation. The protagonist – by design – could be any soldier for any country in any war in history.
- “Earth’s Holocaust,” by Nathaniel Hawthorn. The symbolism of the characters’ actions are the backbone of this story, and each character is represented more as an archetype than any actual human being.
What if you’re trying to tell a different story, though?
Not all stories are about an unlikely hero answering a call to adventure and going on an epic quest to (rescue the princess, save the galaxy, slay the dragon, etc.). If you’re writing a story with a much more subtle plot, then you’re going to have to rely on characters to tell your story.
Sometimes the plot itself is as simple as an chance encounter with a maniac on the roadway. Well, in that case, your maniac had better be as real as if he were standing right in front of the reader, and the victims need to elicit powerful feelings of sympathy (and other powerful emotions) from the reader. For example, see Flannary O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
So How Do We Make Compelling Characters?
The first thing you have to believe about your characters is that they’re real people. In some reality, somewhere, your character exists. Maybe not this reality, but in some reality, your character is there, doing what your character does.
I try to design my characters based off of people I really know, or really know about. That doesn’t mean that my stories are filled with my friends, family, or people I actually know. In reality, my characters are almost amalgamations of two or three people I know. I’ll take their physical characteristics, or speech habits, or tendency to make certain decisions when faced with certain circumstances, and I’ll put those traits into my characters.
Using people I know really helps me to give my characters an authentic voice and an authentic sense of agency in the stories. If, for example, I’ve based a character’s speech patterns after someone named Jorge, and that character’s personality on someone else I know named Laura (I don’t really know anyone named Jorge or Laura – not closely, anyway), I’ll try to imagine Jorge saying what Laura would say in that situation, and then I write what comes out.
Decisions Have to Make Sense!
A friend and I were discussing the Game of Thrones finale the other day (No spoilers here), specifically, why he was upset over it. He wasn’t upset about where any of the characters ended up. Instead, he was upset at the rushed writing that led to those character decisions. Ultimately, he felt that the decisions the major characters made weren’t justified well enough by the writers. I can see his point.
For example, if you have a character that’s been on an arc of redemption – i.e. she starts out as a terrible person, but throughout the course of the story she learns, grows, and begins to atone for past mistakes – it’s totally fine if you decide to have her re-lapse and go back to her wicked ways. But you have to explain it in a way that makes sense to the audience.
That character has to be human enough to make the reversal of course make sense. We can all understand changing our minds, especially if the reasons for it are laid out plainly – either by the character’s previous actions (foreshadowing), or by the character’s demonstrated personality.
Basing Characters on Real People Helps You Explain Their Decisions
Again, going back to the Jorge and Laura example, if I know exactly how Jorge speaks, I’ll get the words right. If I know how Laura thinks and makes decisions, I’ll get the intention behind the words right. And with those two things in place, all you need to do is color in between those lines. In other words, fill in the color of your character that differentiates him/her from both Jorge and Laura and makes him/her a unique person.
A Final Note, and Apology
I’m sorry that I didn’t get this posted yesterday. I ended up getting waylaid by shiny things regarding job prospects, so I couldn’t get to this until now. I also have two long projects awaiting my attention that I’m going to have to work out later tonight. I’ll have the Thoughts for Thursday post up before I go to bed this evening, though. Thanks for your patience!