Making Characters Face Their Demons
In real life people have many different problems to deal with. In fiction, characters tend to have the one problem. They struggle to deal with it but it’s always there, affecting them and the story you’ve put them in.
This is necessary for fiction, otherwise things would be too vague and woolly. We need the cop to be an alcoholic, the kid to be scared of going to school, the woman to be obsessed with getting married, and so on. It doesn’t really matter if their issue is one we’ve seen before (like the ones I’ve just mentioned), because it isn’t the actual problem that people are interested in, it’s how it’s dealt with.
Which means you have to show it being dealt with.
What Motivates The Bad Guy?
Some characters are just born bad. Serial killers, werewolves, bankers—evil is in their blood and they are driven by a compulsion to do terrible things.
But not all antagonists are out and out villains. Just because your mother stops you doing anything fun, interferes in everything you do and guilt trips you into giving up your exciting plans to go curtain shopping with her, does that mean she’s a psycho who can’t be stopped? Hmm, okay, bad example.
My point is while there are some types of characters whose motivations don’t need to be explained because they are basically insane and can’t help themselves, most of the time the person acting against your hero needs their own reasons for pursuing their goal in such determined fashion.
In writing a story you want to limit the number of characters you use. Instead of your main character having one friend to commiserate with over a drink and another friend drive him to the airport, they might as well be the same person.
Sometimes it can be obvious which jobs should go to which characters, but other times it can take a while to realise you can meld two into one. As well as making things more manageable, there are a number of useful consequences of doing this.
Fewer characters are easier to remember and makes the story easier to follow. Giving a character more than one thing to do gives them depth and complexity and generally makes them more interesting. And having familiar characters turn up in different parts of a story is something readers like.
However, simply conflating a bunch of characters into one person can come across as contrived.
Should Secondary Characters Change?
There are some good reasons to keep secondary characters (both friend and foe) fixed in how you represent them in a story.
A lot of these kinds of characters aren’t going to be in the story all that much and they have specific roles to play. Whether it’s to move the plot along or reveal aspects of the main character, playing a supporting role doesn’t always benefit from too much fiddling.
You also don’t want to confuse the reader with a constantly changing cast that makes it hard to remember who’s who. Nor do you want to steal focus from the main players by going off on a tangent.
But then, you also don’t want to create a roster of one-dimensional automatons who walk on to the page to deliver the same old shtick every time, like a bad sitcom.
So how do you balance the two? And do you need to?
Getting Characters Going
It doesn’t matter what kind of character is at the centre of a story, they will all face the same fundamental issue. Something needs to be done and they have to be the one to do it.
The world needs saving, a toy needs buying, or a heart needs winning, but before you get to that, first the character has to make the determination that they are going to act rather than give up and go home.
Whether they succeed or fail depends on the story you want to tell, but whether they try is not up for debate, because otherwise you wouldn’t have a story. So you have to have a character that decides to act and keep going no matter what. But what is that makes them unable to walk away? Understanding what drives them will provide you with a core element of the character, and the driving force behind your narrative.
Story, Character and Contradiction
Human beings are full of contradictions. We want what we don’t have. We get tired of what we struggled to get. We say one thing but do another.
It’s not just people who behave this way, throughout the universe things are happening that aren’t supposed to be happening. We think we know how something works and then it does something completely different.
We like patterns, we like working out the rules and being able to predict events. But there’s always an exception to the rule. An anomaly will arise. The unexpected will turn up with alarming regularity. And when this happens our reaction is to take a closer look. We are fascinated by contradiction and want to examine it for answers, even when there are none to be had.
This urge is powerful and is just as strong in the fictional world as it is in the real one.
The Three Dimensions of Character
A well-rounded character who feels like a real person is obviously what we all want to write. Sometimes this naturally occurs, maybe because the character is based on a real person or on an archetype of the genre. In some cases they may be based on another fictional character from a favourite book.
The writer feels comfortable with writing about them because they know exactly who they’re writing about.
There’s no reason why that approach won’t work. Obviously there’s the danger of creating a cliché or stereotype, but even then that can work if the story is strong enough.
If, however, you want to write a character from the ground up, a character who is as real as any person living, yet wholly your own creation, then there are three aspects you need to know in depth: the physical, sociological and psychological.
A Protagonist’s Moment of Realisation
At some point in a story a character will realise that he’s got to do what he’s got to do. There’s no turning back.
This can happen at any time. On the first page, just before the climax, or anywhere in between—it doesn’t really matter as long as it makes sense within the story. The important thing is for the reader to see this moment so they understand how the character feels and why.
It isn’t enough to just assume the character’s reasons will be taken for granted or accepted without question.
Lifting Characters Off the Page
Sometimes a character is born fully-formed. You know them as well as a member of your family and you don’t need to figure out what they think because they’re more than happy to tell you.
Other times, the character just sits on the page, lifeless and uncooperative. You can write up a biography, have a folder full of background details and still they’re no more alive than a robot.
Creating a character that’s more than just a bag of bones is key to making a story live and breathe. But characters don’t always appear with an interesting personality and unique voice all ready to get the adventure underway. You can give them all the quirky habits and dark secrets you want, but when it comes to carrying the story from your imagination to the reader’s, something feels a little flat.
So, how can you get your characters to talk to you, and how do you make sure that what they have to say is worth reading about?
The Logic of Illogical Characters
It is often suggested that when writing fiction you don’t want to tell your audience the answer is 4, you want to put 2 and 2 in front of them and let them work it out.
This is a powerful way of getting them involved in the story. If they’re putting things together in their head then they’re participating in the narrative, which is what you want.
But the way logic works once people are involved is not always the same as it works in mathematics.
Sometimes 2+2=5, and when you put that in front of your audience they will want to know what the hell you mean and demand an explanation. And there’s nobody more involved than someone wanting answers.