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.
All Character, No Plot
Occasionally I will get questions from new writers and by far the most common concern plot. The aspiring novelist will have a very strong grasp of who they want to write about and where proceedings will be set, but actually coming up with a plot seems daunting.
For some people the events that take place are the first things they come up with, but if that isn’t how it works for you then having an intimate knowledge of your main character is still an excellent route to working out what the story will be about.
Bear in mind that even the most inexperienced of writers is still a hugely experienced reader. We have all been reading, hearing and watching stories for many years. But while everyone feels confident in their ability to judge whether those stories are good, bad or indifferent, when it comes to our own writing it becomes much more tricky to gauge.
If you have a strong sense of how a story will go that’s all well and good, but if you don’t then here are three steps that will help demystify the process.
What Struggle Means For Character
As readers we like to see characters struggle. It’s entertaining and thrilling. But that’s what it’s like for the reader. For the character, struggle serves another, less obvious purpose. One that can easily be overlooked.
When a butterfly emerges from its cocoon, it is frail and weak. But it has to use up all the energy it has to break out of the little prison its caterpillar-self made.
However, if you were to lend a helping hand and make an incision in the side of the cocoon, enabling the butterfly to emerge quickly and easily, the butterfly would die.
Because that immense effort isn’t just there to make life hard, it’s there to give the butterfly the strength it needs to be able to fly. By struggling against its surroundings, the new body is able to stretch and flex and gain power.
Struggle provides the conditioning necessary to meet future challenges.
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.
Double Dipping Tension
Tension is an important part of any story. You want the problems gripping your characters to also grip your readers. But tension is not a one off thing that you can create and leave to do its job.
If tension remains at a steady state it decreases over time. If a guy is in a locked room waiting for the killer to come back and finish the job, and he waits, and waits, then he’s eventually going to stop freaking out. He might even get a little bored.
You either have to face the problem (leading to some kind of resolution) or escalate the tension in some way. But even then not all tension is created equal.
Motivating Your Inner Writer
You’re writing your story, maybe you’re a few days in or perhaps a few weeks, and suddenly you feel the compulsion to do the dishes. Or the laundry. Or tidy up that closet. And if, like me, you aren’t overly fond of housework or tedious chores, it may occur to you that it’s rather odd that you now feel compelled to do something you dislike rather than do the thing you’ve loved since you were a kid.
Not that writing can’t be a frustrating endeavour, but why would you actually want to do that menial job you usually find any excuse to avoid doing? Why not go do something fun? Or nothing at all? Seems a bit strange, no?
There is in fact a pretty simple reason why, and once you understand it, it can actually make it easier to get your head back in the game.
Setting as Part of Story
You want readers to feel like they’re in the world of your story. When the character enters a place, you want the reader to feel like they too have entered that place.
How you do this would seem fairly straightforward. You describe everything the character sees and hears and smells and tastes and touches, right?
But you may have noticed that while description of setting in a good book is immersive and entertaining, when you write something like that in your own story it can often feel longwinded and unengaging.
You paint a clear picture of the world but it’s like you’re not actually in the picture, you’re just viewing it from a distance. So how do you close that gap so the reader is pulled into the setting rather than skimming over it?
Status as Character Calling Card
The main character in a story will tend to have something about them that marks them out. They need to be distinct from everyone else just as a matter of practicality. It might be a special skill or ability—they’re the best at what they do—but it could also be a behavioural or psychological thing. A character who’s good-hearted or brave or willing to sacrifice or whatever.
While their job or social standing will give the reader a rough idea of the kind of person the story will be about, it’s this unique quality, this thing that marks them out, that gives them their true status. It is also what makes them appealing to read about.
However, while you as the writer may have a very clear idea of what’s so great about the character, the reader doesn’t. And letting them in on it halfway through the book is not going to do you any favours.You have to win them over in the first few pages. So how do you do that?
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.