Catching Fireflies

finding magic along the way

A Good Man is Hard to Find

We’ve all heard it before — a good man (or woman) is hard to find.  And no, this post is NOT about online dating! 🙂

We are going to talk about characters.  

When I was little, we had sets of paper dolls.  For anyone who has never had a set in your hands, they were cardboard people with paper clothes that you attached with little tabs.  Paper dolls were not very exciting, as you can imagine.  They didn’t move and the only thing you could really do with them is change their clothes.  Barbie was a little more exciting because at least you could make her sit or move her arms. But deep down, she was still pretty dull – just a plastic person with a painted on smile.  These were the exact opposite of what you want for your characters!

Heros, villains, supporting cast – each has the potential to make or break your story. Whether they are characters we love, or ones we love to hate, a good character can carry a mediocre plot, but a flat, mediocre character will sink your story no matter how many adrenaline-pumping car chases and explosions you throw into the mix.

As Chuck Wendig said in his book, 250 Things You Should Know About Writing, plots are like Soylent Green – they’re made of people! 🙂 Without characters, there is no story. 

So what do you want to see in a character? A protagonist? An anti-hero? What are the things that make you care enough to turn the page.

I think consistency is number one.  This applies to both the physical and moral aspects of the character. If the main character was born and raised in the south, and had a tractor accident that crushed his foot… I would expect him to have a bit of an accent and a limp.  If he talks like he has been living in Australia his whole life and can run up stairs without a thought, my BS detector starts to glow a bit.  Now if throughout the story, he has been terrorizing other kids on the playground and spending his free time taking pot shots at pigeons in the park, I get a sense that he is a bully.  If you suddenly have him helping little old ladies cross the street, I am going to wonder about his motivation. 

Motivation is another area where I want to see consistency.  Don’t start your hero on a quest to save the damsel in distress and turn it in to a political campaign for the kingdom. What does he really want? To be king, or to save the girl? If both can live simultaneously in his heart, then show that on the page.

Characters should not be perfect.  Even characters in a fantasy story reflect real people to some extent.  They have emotions, needs, motivations, histories, dreams, and so on.  Show me those, but also show me their weaknesses, quirks, fears and superstitions.  Perfection is very boring in fiction.  A heroine who isn’t afraid of anything, including the villain who is destroying her world, is boring. A villain who has no history is flat and boring –what made him so mean anyway?

Don’t go overboard on the imperfections though.  Unless there is a good reason for a character to be completely pathetic, give him some sort of redeeming quality.

Show us your character through dialogue and action.  Don’t rattle on for pages telling us what he is like.  Show us by making him do something. Don’t tell me how mean the Dark One is – make him pillage a town and hold people prisoner.  Don’t tell me how kind-hearted a supporting character is – make her almost cause a three car pile up because she was braking for a squirrel.

Make things happen to your characters.  (It’s called plot!) 🙂 Conflict is good; tension is good.  Let’s do that! A story where your main character doesn’t actually have to overcome some sort of conflict, isn’t a story.  Bonus points if that conflict changes your character. [yes, I have been hanging out a little too long on the NaNoWriMo forums lately.]

Let your character respond to the story.  Don’t let your plot be something that just happens to your character.  They need to react and respond.  They need to do more than just sit on the porch and watch the plot go by.

Every story is different, yet the same.  A protagonist needs someone or something to cause conflict that he/she can address and in doing so, move the plot forward. An antagonist does not necessarily need to be another character. It could be a Wal-Mart coming in to crush the main character’s business, an asteroid that is about to hit Earth, or a plane crash that leaves your character stranded on a desert island.  At that point, the island, the weather, the lack of a food source or the genetically mutated squirrel monkeys that live on the island could all play the role of antagonist at some point. [again with the forums… what can I say, they make me think strange thoughts.]

What makes you love or loathe a character?  Can a poorly written character make you put down the book?

4 Comments

  1. I love the complexities of creating characters and bringing them to life. I have to really make them real in my mind, like a 3 dimensional stalking convention.

    • Hey Daphne! I like fleshing out the characters and making them real, with their own quirks and voice and all. I actually think the lack of character development is what is making my NaNo ride so difficult this year… Need to take a few hours and wrap my mind around who these characters are and why they do what they do! 🙂 time to twke my own advice!

      • That’s always the hardest part, huh? Taking your own advice.
        Good luck! 😉

        • Made the mistake of starting to re-read It – one of my favorite Stephen King novels… feeling woefully inadequate now as that man can weave so much description into his narrative and you know every character! Now at least I know how my editing months will be shaping up — character fleshing out and setting fleshing out and description description description!! 🙂

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