Stories, as a general rule, need characters, because characters, as a general rule, satisfy two of the most important needs of a story. The first is that they provide the component of a narrative that makes it relatable to the reader. Any good character will function as a bridge to bring the reader from being a passive observer over into an active participant of the world and setting. The presence of a relatable character is what changes a story from a “telling” to an “experiencing”. Though a story be entirely a work of fiction and made up of a cast of anthropomorphic animals such as The Wind in the Willows, if the characters are relatable enough most people will find personal significance in the tale and then struggle to find any life lessons from the fact-driven accounts of their own ancestors in historical texts. Thus, if you want your story to be elevated to something more than just a sequence of events, you’re going to need powerful characters.
So what makes a character powerful? First off, let me reject the notion that there is any “style” of character that is inherently better than another. For example, should a character be single-dimensional or multi-faceted? Static and consistent throughout the story, or dynamic and evolving? The fact is it depends entirely on what story you are creating. In one film, Inside Out, Joy and Sadness are flat and monotone by design, they are supposed to represent one-dimensional ideas, the emotions they are named after. It was the right choice for that story. Alternatively, in another film, Schindler’s List, we meet Oskar Schindler who evolves from selfish and disinterested to sacrificing and empathetic. He celebrates and grieves in the very same scene. And he’s supposed to, because he’s an actual and complete person.
In fact, it’s not at all uncommon to have within a single story all manner of different types of characters. In Faust our title character and Gretchen are both wretched, yet striving. In each lays a flaw that seems to give the devil claim on them, yet also a virtue that gives mercy a chance to reclaim them. Here in the same story, though, is also Mephistopheles, who represents a single destructive purpose and everything he does is in in service of that never-deviating focus. In the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde we literally have two intentionally single-dimensional characters, yet the two of them unite to create a multi-faceted whole.
So what is it then that makes all of these diverse characters “good” characters? There is one common principle they share, and it is that principle that is the second function of characters in your story: they all represent something. Each of these characters has a core attribute that they remain true to, and in performing their arc we gain a lesson on that attribute. As you might imagine, what exactly they might represent is as wide and varied as the plethora of different they stories they possess. In Pinocchio our character represents mortal man, striving to become like his creator-father. In Ahab we have monomaniacal vengeance, and see how it destroys self no matter what cause it is employed in. In George Bailey we have the dreaming, ambitious heart, and see how it struggles to feel adequate when its yearnings have been smothered by duty. In Sydney Carton we have unrealized potential, and the hope of one last un-squandered chance.
While the situations around the character change, while their perspectives and resolutions might evolve, these cores define them and drive all that they do. These core representations are the very purpose for the author brining them into being.
When you know your character’s core, what it is they represent, and you know how you want the reader to personally relate to that core, then you will find that you already know how to move them through your story. When you don’t know these things, you’ll probably find, as I have, that all of your characters sound exactly the same as one another, and the person they all sound like is the author. In fact, I ran into this very issue with the novel I am currently working on, which is supposed to feature four main characters, each with their own identity and mannerisms. I’m going to quote for you verbatim the note I made to myself as I was reviewing my plot outline at the time:
Right now you have 1.5 main characters out of the adventurers, and the rest are supporting, if that. You have scenes and conversations that are motivated by completing your checklists, not driven by arcs and needs. You should establish the arc for ALL adventurers, even Clara. Each point in the plot ask what experience there is driving their arc along.
Having recorded that, the very next line in my notes was for me to establish what this particular character, Clara, represents:
Clara Whit-Innocence and Potential
That might not seem like much, but determining this changed everything in the story. I had started asking myself how is young potential stimulated or stymied? What should happen in this scene to either tarnish or reinstate this character’s innocence? Is this scene being true to Clara’s core? What does Clara need from the other characters in this part of the story? I went to each of the other characters and figured out what they represented as well and things quickly became more complex as I was now asking questions like how do Clara’s core attributes interplay with William’s? How does he either reinforce or undermine her character? A great deal changed in the plot and my characters finally seemed to have found their voices.
Speaking of finding voices, I mentioned in my last blog post that I wanted to explore what the newly married couple was whispering to one another at the wedding reception. I’ve already established what core attributes I want each of the two characters to represent, and how I want the reader to relate to them. Over the next few days I will build a dialogue between them with the intent of being true to those representations, check in Thursday to see the result!