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.
Strong Character Is Strong?
In fiction, characters who show themselves to be strong are considered to be appealing to readers. But what exactly counts as strength and what doesn’t?
When it comes to female character this is an especially contentious subject, the main criticism being that “strong women” in books and movies are often just aping what a man would do.
Violent, aggressive, uncompromising, these are all seen as male traits.
But the thing that make a strong character strong, and makes for a weak character when absent, is the same for males and females. And it has little to do with how badass someone is.
Multi-Dimensional Character Building
We all want to write characters that have depth and complexity. We want them to feel like real people who struggle with decisions and choices, and we want the reader to be curious about what path they’ll take.
The problem is that if you give characters all the reactions and moods of a real person, they can turn into a confusing muddle of contradictions.
Conversely, if you try to streamline a character’s motivations and goals in an attempt to create a strong throughline which the reader can clearly identify and follow, that can make the character seem one-dimensional and robotic.
How, then, do you make a character feel fully formed and yet at the same time easy to engage with?
The Complexity Of Complex Characters
A glass slips out of Mr A’s hand and smashes on the floor. He sighs and sweeps up the pieces and then gets another glass out of the cabinet.
A glass slips out of Mr B’s hand and smashes on the floor. He lets out a howl of rage and stamps the pieces into dust under his feet.
The different reactions of these two men are both perfectly plausible. But in this case both men are the same person. The only difference is that these two events occur on different days when Mr A-B is in dealing with life in different ways.
Again, perfectly plausible. We all have our moods. We all have good and bad days.
However, in fiction, having characters react in a variety of ways to more or less the same stimulus will make them appear to be acting out of character. But when is it distracting and unnecessarily convoluted, and when is it a reasonable depiction of the richness of human interactions?
Content Of Your Character
There’s no point having a story by the end of which the reader will know who your main character is and what he’s about.
You may think that the purpose of the story is to reveal this and that’s it’s intriguing for the reader not to be too sure where a character’s loyalties lie. That would be wrong.
Did you have a good idea of what kind of person Harry was before he got to Hogwart’s? Did you have a reasonable idea about Katniss before she got to the games?
The initial part of a story is to tell the reader the character’s values and beliefs. Once things kick off, then it’s time to test those values and beliefs.
A Plot Problem Is A Character Problem
If a story seems a little dull, if the plot doesn’t seem to be very engaging, you could deal with it by having more stuff happen, more people running around, new characters, additional subplots and so forth.
Usually, though, the problem is not in what’s happening, the problem is who’s doing it.
If the character hasn’t been created with enough depth, what they get up to will feel arbitrary and unsatisfying. If the plot isn’t holding people’s attention, the first place you should look is character.
A Character Needs A MacGuffin
A MacGuffin is the thing a character wants. It’s what he sets out to find, hide, build or destroy. Its existence is what drives a story forward.
It was a term coined by Alfred Hitchcock, and the reason he gave it such a silly name is because he believed it didn’t really matter what it was, just as long as it existed and the need it represented was clear.
The important thing is that it’s tangible. An object, a person, a place. Some thing. If a character wants to be happy, that isn’t a MacGuffin. If he wants to be happy by stealing the Hope Diamond and becoming rich, then the diamond is the MacGuffin.
But you could replace the diamond with any similar object and it would work just as well. The important thing to remember is that it needs to be a thing, not an idea or an attitude.
Resist Giving Characters A Helping Hand
It is tempting, especially at the beginning of a story, to have things happen in a way that is convenient, just to get the ball rolling. A new guy starts at work and our heroine likes the look of him. Later that evening she’s in the supermarket doing a little shopping and who should be buying olives at the deli counter but that guy from work…
Obviously that scenario is perfectly plausible. We run into friends or work colleagues all the time. You can be visiting a foreign city, walk round a corner and bump into someone you went to school with and haven’t seen in years.
But the temptation for a writer to lend a hand, to put their character in the right place at the right time, makes it harder to get to know the character. You are in fact delaying the start of the story.
Not All Characters Deserve To Be In The Story
It’s pretty easy to overpopulate a story.
Usually, it’s to make things seem realistic (an office should have people in it, a party should be crowded).
Sometimes it seems like a clever ploy (with 73 suspects the reader will never guess who the murderer is!).
Or it can be a way to give different types of readers someone to root for. These characters are the love story, these guys provide the adventure, this one will appeal to older women, this one to comedy fans…
Too many characters often make a story hard to follow, confuse the reader and create unnecessary complications. But once they’re in, taking them out can seem daunting, like pulling at a single loose thread that ends up unravelling the whole cardigan.
It’s really not that hard, though.
Writing Great Characters
You know how important a great main character is to a story. Sherlock Holmes or Elizabeth Bennett or Becky Sharp. Whether they’re fighting at the edge of a cliff or having a quiet moment of reflection or making a total ass of themselves, you want to be there with them. That’s the sort of thing you want to create, right?
But when you put your character down on paper, they’re a bit wishy-washy, a bit ordinary. They work in a boring office, or get stuck doing household chores. They’re waiting for someone to come along and make things interesting for them.
That’s okay, you’ve read books like that, where the ordinary character get swept up in an adventure, with romance and thrills and derring-do, right? Of course you have… but wait, what happened to writing great characters?