When it comes down to it, it’s the people in stories that stay with the reader. You may be impressed and delighted by a plot twist or a surprise ending, but that’s not what you’ll remember years later. It’s the characters that will stay with you.
Some fictional characters resonate strongly with people. They stand out as remarkable. You want to know more about them. You want to read more books about them. You want to see the movie when it comes out. Why? What is it that makes a character stand out? And more importantly, how does anyone meeting your character for the first time know how wonderful they are?
A great character can make all the difference (whether you’re a reader or a writer), but they don’t arrive fully formed exuding greatness from their first appearance. And the thing that makes them great isn’t the same across the board. Some are likeable heroes, but some are fascinating villains, entertaining sidekicks, tragic lovers, etc. Anne of Green Gables or Hannibal Lecter, they both have their fans.
But you have to be careful not to just transfer your feelings about established characters onto your own creations. You love Elizabeth Bennet, so when you write your feisty heroine, you consider her to be in the same mould. She has the same attitude, same firmness of belief. But that’s all in your head. No one else is privy to that perfectly formed character.
Even though as a writer you may be very fond of a character you’ve created, you can’t assume everyone else will see them in that light. Describing what they look like and how they carry themselves can give a clearer picture of them, but so what? You could very accurately describe an unusual-looking rock, wouldn’t make a great lead character (well, maybe in the next Fast and Furious movie).
You have to prove how affable, terrifying, inventive, amusing, or whatever, they are. The advantage you have is that you can put them in any situation, anywhere, any when. Once you know what it is about them that makes them cool, you have the tools to highlight that side of them to the fullest.
But first you have to have an awareness of what makes your character worth spending time with. Some people find this so uncomfortable they don’t refuse to think about it at all, and just hope for the best. And sometimes that works (although usually by being very similar to pre-existing characters).
The only way for the rest of us to see your character’s interesting qualities if you portray her in a manner that reflects those values. And it’s very easy to sense those things when you’re reading a well written story by a good writer, it’s quite another to understand how that effect was achieved and then do likewise in your own writing.
The first thing that attracts us to a character is what they say (or sometimes what they don’t say). There’s a lot of room in dialogue to be funny, to be brave, to say things that catch a reader’s interest. But as in real life, just because someone can talk the talk...
What really tells us about a person is what they do. When someone acts, what they do supersedes what they say. By our deeds are we known. But does that mean whatever someone does it automatically becomes interesting? Obviously not. It’s the difficult things, the moments when fans and excrement collide that true character is revealed.
So, a person’s actions reveal who they are, but a person’s actions under pressure, in awkward circumstances, when they’re under fire from all sides, that’s when things get interesting.
And those situations, how they come about, how they are resolved and the consequences that develop, that’s called plot. In order for you to understand who a character is and what makes them great, they have to go through a plot. Good plot reveals what’s interesting about your characters.
It doesn’t have to be saving the world, because the plot goal for fictional characters is not the same as the plot goal of the reader. Jack McAdventure might be looking for the lost treasure of Fabulopolis, but the goal for the reader is to find out what kind of guy Jack is. And we learn by how he copes with his quest. But Maureen the checkout girl can have just as revealing an adventure going home on a bus.
The job of the writer is to make it look like the story is about what the character’s do, but really it’s about who the characters are. And a good way to do that is through what they say. A better way is through what they do. And the best way is through what they do under pressure. Whether that pressure is in the form of a pit of vipers, or a lost bus ticket.
Because there’s no way for a reader to encounter a character and see them as great or remarkable or memorable, without seeing them in action, in a plot. How else would you know? Because someone else told you? Well, actually, yes, that can work. If everyone else acts like the Fonz is cool, people who have no idea who the Fonz is start thinking so too. But that’s once the ball’s already rolling. That initial push to raise a character from a guy on the page to someone you can’t stop thinking about has to come from the writer. It has to come from you. And you have to convince the reader it’s true.If you found this post of interest, please give it a retweet. Cheers.