01 Oct Literature Month: Characters (The Real Heart of the Story)
There are many components that come together to make a story. And in the diverse forms of media we have, different kinds of stories have various strengths and pulls; crime novels thrive on their suspense and mystery; action movies are defined by their set-pieces. However, in all this, there is one thing that I think you will find in most, if not all good stories: good characters.
So, you want to write a story. Not just that but you’re ready to wow the world with your mind-blowing plot, tear-jerking scenes or jaw-dropping panels as the case may be.
Well good on you! But before you start putting it all down, I just want to ask you something. Do you have your characters all planned out? I know you know their names. And that Jack falls in love with Lisa. But let’s delve deeper. What are their fears? Aspirations? Favorite colour? Favorite childhood memory? You don’t have to go down to the minutest detail with each character but I suggest you go quite deep with the main ones. Why? Because characters go beyond being the audience’s emotional connection to your story. Well-written characters are more central to a good story than you may think. Here’s how:
Plot: Characters are defined by the choices they make. The choices they make are defined by the people you make them. Robert McKee says that the more pressure there is on your character, the truer that decision is to their true nature.
A plot is the sequence of events or situations that your characters encounter. There is a marked difference between a plot that happens TO your characters and one that happens BECAUSE of them. Having a greater percentage of the latter usually leads to more compelling stories. You want the plot to happen because of in-character decisions they make.
Theme: Here’s one that many people don’t consider. Most stories are peppered with themes related to the moral or point the writer is trying to get across. While those themes will usually be explored in various plot moments, we learned earlier that good plot moments should be character driven. Meaning, the characteristics you imbibe your characters with should (where possible) tie into the themes being addressed. It would be really difficult to write a story that touches on the issues of sexism without characters that display sexist traits (that kinda goes without saying). However, this also means that you can have characters with values on differing sides of the same theme/philosophy and put them against each other. This creates memorable character relationships and encounters. That properly highlight the theme. Take for example,
Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus from Spider-Man 2. Both characters stand on opposite sides of a spectrum. Batman and the Joker in their order-versus-chaos game of chess, Captain America and Tony stark with their different understandings of how to best do their job. In many cases, the character becomes a vessel for conveying the thematic messages hidden in your text. Use that power wisely.
As I hope you can now see, your characters go beyond just the names on the page. If Jack is gonna fall for Lisa, we’re going to want to know why. If he gets fired from work, let it be because he skipped a meeting to buy her flowers. If your story deals with heartbreak and trust, maybe Lisa is the kind of person that doesn’t trust Jack or the nature of his advances.
Besides, I’ve noticed from experience that sometimes with the right characters, their actions play out organically and the story writes itself.
Now I think you’re ready to put pen to paper (or fingers to the keyboard as is more the case nowadays). Your characters are ready to influence the plot and wet the eyes of audiences.
I suggest you do some research too. Check out your favourite stories and see if you can figure out:
-Seemingly minute character traits that somehow come into play
-The elements of the theme present in the characters
-The things that strike you as out of place for a character and why.