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.
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.