Great Characters–The Beating Heart of Great Fiction
Today we are going to talk about character, but I want you guys to breathe and relax. Give yourselves permission to not know everything. Art is not one of those things that we take a few lessons and “graduate” as experts. True artists never stop learning.
We read, take classes, and always push ourselves to the next level. Most new writers do not sufficiently understand plot, but I will say that the key to creating better plots rests in a deeper understanding of character.
But How Do We Come Up with Plot?
Some people naturally think in terms of plot. They are the kind of people who think of a story problem, but then need to cast characters appropriate to the story. Other people think in terms of character, a person who they want to cast, but they need to find the right story. Both ways of thinking are fine, but both require an in depth study of character.
Story/Plot Comes from Characters—Characters Create the Problem
Take a handful of flawed humans with agendas, put them together, shake, slowly turn up the heat and watch the drama ignite. Great fiction is fueled by bad decisions and human weakness. All good stories are biblical. They are all birthed by inherent human flaws—the desire for power, control, recognition, jealousy, rage, cowardice, lust, vengeance, etc. This is why perfect characters are super boring. We can’t relate.
Failure/Weakness is the Hinge Point of Connection and Story
Character flaws help us connect. In good stories, we should be able to connect with both the protagonist and the antagonist. If our antagonist is a pure evil mustache-twirler, that generally leads to a literary snooze fest. In fact, the more we connect with the antagonist, the better the story.
For instance, the movie Law Abiding Citizen is an excellent example. The antagonist, Clyve Shelton, is a husband/father whose wife and young daughter are brutally raped, tortured, then slaughtered by two repeat offenders.
Clyve is beaten, bound and left for dead, yet survives to testify. In the end, the justice system fails to serve appropriate justice and one of the bad guys cops a plea and walks free. Clyve Shelton is a father/husband out to avenge his murdered family and to punish a lax justice system.
Vengeance is definitely biblical.
It is really hard not to root for the antagonist in this movie, which is what makes Law Abiding Citizen a superior example of story-telling.
We see easily how story/plot is birthed from character. When we look at Shelton’s background, we see that he is a tinkerer of the deadliest sort. He has used his skills on all kinds of black bag operations. NOT a guy to screw with.
Thus, we see how, if the murderers picked on the family of an ice cream truck driver, we could have never had the construction materials for the plot of Law Abiding Citizen. Story is birthed from the fact that the justice system failed the wrong citizen. They failed a guy who has the skills to take them out….literally. We find ourselves rooting for him because we connected emotionally. What would we do for our own children?
Dig Down to the Uncomfortable Stuff
This is a photo of my son after he’d been terribly injured. I struggled with whether or not to post it, but this image (captured on my cell phone) was just so haunting, and it spoke volumes with its quiet pain. All of us react viscerally to injustice and pain, especially when an innocent is involved.
There are times, like with my son, that the injury is a result of an accident. Yet, doesn’t this terrible yet beautiful picture speak an untold story? What if this injury was the result of an abuser? A kidnapper? What acts would we “forgive” in the pursuit of “justice”? How easily could the lines of hero and villain blur? This is when things get sticky.
Sticky = Interesting
Law Abiding Citizen connects us on the same emotional fault lines. We are willing to forgive the antagonist, but how far? That is the question the screenwriters explore. The story is one that will leave audiences talking and taking sides. The premise isn’t neat and clean. It is an ugly jagged gash with no clean edges, which makes excellent fiction.
And, just so you guys know, my son is just fine.
Plot is birthed from character. Characters are vital to plot, and that is one of the reasons that attendees of my old critique group were required to write very detailed character backgrounds before plotting. We needed the character’s history to understand her story.
What were her inner demons? What world-view did the character have? What need is not yet fulfilled? What is she afraid of? What are the character’s strengths? What does the character believe she needs to be happy? What does she need to prove? How is the character used to getting her way? Is this tool effective?
This is Especially True for Literary Fiction
Despite what anyone tells you, literary fiction must also have a plot. The only difference between commercial fiction and literary fiction is that the character arc takes precedence and plot is of lesser importance (lesser importance, not NO importance).
For instance, in The Road by Cormac McCarthy, there is a plot. Man and Boy must make it to the sea. But it is more important HOW they make it than IF they make it. If the Man and Boy resort to cannibalism, that is an epic fail. They must make it to the sea, but without sacrificing their humanity. Yet, if you read The Road there is a three-act structure, turning points, rising stakes, etc.
There is an end goal—make it to the sea. No journey, no crucible. If the story is Man and Boy sitting in a cave reminiscing about the good old days and being bummed about having no food, we have a bad situation. Bad situations are not conflict.
But again, story is birthed from character. There is a Man and a Boy who are obviously father and son. Much of the plot and decisions stem from this being a father and son. The story would be very different if the characters were different. The Man might have laid down and died if he had nothing to live for, to fight for.
It makes the conflict far more interesting. As parents, would we watch our child starve to death, or would we serve up some hobo BBQ with extra ketchup and tell the kid it’s chicken? The child would live, but at what cost? This story probes the really hard questions. What would we do to survive? What is “living” if we forfeit humanity? Again, the questions are not easily answered because the problems aren’t black and white.
Whether we are plotters or pantsers, we still need to ask the tough questions. We need to play armchair psychologist and get to the heart of the character, to go beyond hair and eye color. It is the weaknesses, demons, and skeletons in the closet that make the best stories. This is an especially important for step plotters, otherwise, it is easy for all your characters to become “talking heads.”
What are your thoughts? Who are your favorite characters? What do you think adds dimension to fiction? What are some exercises you recommend?
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I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.
At the end of August I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!
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