CHAPTER 3: Character
Character motivations, wishes and desires, are the driving forces behind the novel. Character emotion exerts dramatic pressure on the storyline and forces it forward. Therefore, without interesting, highly motivated characters the novel loses its emotional impact.
The situation is even more critical, however, than just having interesting characters. The reading experience can only become personal through characters. The more intimate the contact with a character, the more the reader will react emotionally. In dramatic fiction, the reader must be allowed to view both the fictional world and feel the human impact of the story. To receive the human impact, the reader must have an affinity for one or more of the characters. The reader then gets a human perspective on events. The character must be someone threatened and pushed about by events. Otherwise the novel becomes little more than a narrative history.
The relationship between author and character is fraught with paradox. The author, in a sense, resides within all his characters (and will always absorb some of their neuroses). Ironically, only by getting your characters away from you can you get that closeness needed to relate to them and write them properly. We say to hook up with voice and write from within the character. Approach all your characters through their senses. Listen to them, and let their experience generate your words. If your character climbs on a horse, we need to feel the saddle, smell the leather, and sense the height. In that way, you’ll be able to determine what jumps off the page and is “alive,” as opposed to that which lingers lifelessly on the page.
As human beings, we know so little about ourselves that we have difficulty relating to a character that we see as ourselves. A good exercise is to write about someone we view as our opposite. This is one of the best ways to identify that hidden part of ourselves that our characters represent. In Madam Bovary, Flaubert so completely identified with Emma Bovary that, when he described her suicide, he could taste the arsenic in his own mouth.
The taste of arsenic was so really in my mouth when I described how Emma Bovary was poisoned, that it cost me two indigestions one upon the other quite real ones, for I vomited my dinner.16
Every author strives for that closeness, so much so that many authors feel that they are not creating a character, but channeling one.
In the next chapter, we’ll investigate the role of the narrator, the voice that tells the story. The relationship between reader and narrator is much the same as the relationship between reader and character, but distinct differences sometimes do exist, so it’s best to talk about character separately.
In Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, we see the novel’s world and its events through the eyes of a poet. He is our “camera to the world;” more than that, we gauge our reaction by the impact events have upon him, and we suffer along with him. This is as it should be. The reader always gives up a part of himself to one or more of the characters in a good novel, and rides piggyback on those characters’ feelings. The relationship between reader and character is illustrated in Figure 3:
The reader emotionally attaches to a character and experiences the world and events through him. Only in this way does the novel simulate a real experience instead of just hearsay. It’s crucial that the author understand the importance of this. The reader must “experience” the story, and he can only experience the drama vicariously, through a character.
As you’ll learn in the next chapter, the reader is in a state of total sensory deprivation, and must have a surrogate who feels and experiences for him in the fictional world. Whenever we, as readers, are deprived of this character contact, the fictional dream dims and we lose interest. The exception, of course, is the occasional use of narrative summary, which does not have to be “experienced,” and by way of which information may be received secondhand.
The more plot-driven the story, the more it will seem contrived. To prevent this, the author must let the characters drive the plot. A character’s emotions and wishes exert dramatic pressure on the storyline and force it to flow naturally. Some academics call the storyline the “wish-line.” Emotional energy causes things to happen. Emotions produce the intensity and vividness that keep the story interesting. Character feelings stretch along the thread of storyline like pearls strung along a necklace.
Through the years, creative writing instructors have described all sorts of ways to create characters. Most suggest writing character biographies, which is a very good idea, but rarely do they go on to tell you how to ensure that your characters bear the correct relationships to the story. The approach I present here will ensure that the proper relationships are established. As with all elements of the novel, to create characters we return to Premise. As stated before, the first word of the Premise provides the protagonist, and the third word the Antagonist. This is illustrated in Figure 4:
First, a word about the concepts “protagonist” and “antagonist.” Commonly referred to, the protagonist is the story’s “hero” and the antagonist its “villain.” Though these concepts may serve your story well and in some stories even fit the characters perfectly, I find these concepts generally rather naïve. In the best of stories, particularly those that reflect most real-life situations (excluding serial killer stories, etc.), we have no clear-cut heroes or villains. Certainly, neither the mother nor father becomes a villain in Kramer vs. Kramer. Webster’s Dictionary does a little better, defining protagonist as “one who takes the leading part in a drama,” and the antagonist as “one that opposes, an adversary.”
Generally, I prefer to refer to the protagonist as the point-of-view character. He’s the one the narrator follows around throughout the novel. The antagonist is then the character in conflict with the protagonist. This moves us away from a moral judgment of the two main characters.
We gain more information about each of these central characters by investigating the nature of their conflict. We know that the protagonist feels strongly about what is at stake in the conflict, and that the antagonist feels equally determined about it. Because of their strong affinity for the same thing, the two will be opposites in some ways, and in others, mirror images, but they will always be related.
What is most important is that authors realize the gold mine of character traits that come from the Premise. By selecting the most central aspects of character from the Premise, the author will ensure that the character is directly connected to the storyline and suited to the action resulting from the conflict. This welds Premise (theme), storyline and characterization so as to achieve the unity that Burroway knew a novel had to have, but didn’t know how to achieve.
HEART OF CHARACTER
The central, most important characteristics of both the protagonist and antagonist are identified in the Premise. These are characters in crisis, and the nature of the conflict between them will define who they are, and help the reader see beyond them to the level of the primal forces they represent. To illustrate this, I’ll use a rather trite, but exquisite, example from the movie The Wizard of Oz. Each of the characters Dorothy befriends on her way to see the Wizard has a defect. The scarecrow needs brains, the Tin Man a heart, and the Cowardly Lion courage. Though this is a childish implementation of the technique, it illustrates clearly how to allow the reader to focus, not only on the characters’ physical attributes, which may also be distinctive, but also to give us a view of the inside of each character and, in doing this, make them “human.” By making these secondary characters an animal, a mechanical-man, and a gunnysack stuffed with straw, the screenwriters further defined the physical attributes of the characters, and their way of reacting to the world, at a single brushstroke and made them easily identifiable to children. As a result of this characterization, the story is loaded with meaning.
In Titanic, Rose’s central characteristic is a desire for freedom. The central characteristic of both her mother and her fiancé is their desire to keep Rose under control, in bondage, though the motivation of each is different. On the other hand, Jack’s intentions toward Rose are for her to become her own person. Rose’s interaction with Jack more fully develops her personality, exposing the depth of her desire for independence and freedom. Her fiancé’s attempts to keep her away from Jack expose the depth of his desire to control her. Eventually, she comes to risk her life to save Jack (her symbol of freedom), and her fiancé is driven to attempt murder. This primal struggle between freedom and bondage is then fully manifested in character. Rose’s life then becomes the perfect metaphor for the cosmic theme of the human spirit’s struggle for freedom.
Another aspect of Rose’s problem is identified by the question: When does freedom lead to irresponsibility? She has a responsibility to her mother and also to her fiancé. How she reconciles this is her internal struggle, a crisis of conscience and also one of courage. This illustrates another aspect of character that we’ll now discuss.
CHARACTER STRENGTH AND WEAKNESS
In the Poetics, Aristotle talks about what some have come to call the “tragic flaw,” a sort of spiritual weakness that eventually does-in the tragic character. It has come down to us this way because of a misreading of the ancient text, but never the less has been found useful in character creation. For a tragic character of heroic proportions, this character flaw will cause his downfall. In the case of the designer of the Titanic, it was arrogance that brought him down. He thought his ship was unsinkable. Character strength and weakness are probably more useful concepts than the “tragic flaw.” The weakness may manifest itself as the “underside” of the character, the preacher’s weakness for hookers, the movie star’s weakness for drugs, or the football player’s uncontrollable jealously toward his ex-wife.
Character strength will also come from Premise. This will be the aspect of personality that will get the protagonist into trouble, i.e., put him in conflict with the antagonist. Associated with this strength will also be a weakness. The weakness will be the attribute of character that will provide the key to success. Strength gets the character into trouble, and the way he deals with his weakness gets the character out of trouble.
Also, weakness gives the protagonist or antagonist a human quality that will endear him to the reader, particularly if the character has a rather lofty social stature. It makes him seem more human. This weakness may result from the “underside” of the character’s strength. A strong desire for independence or liberty can lead to irresponsibility. This irresponsible side will almost cost the character the struggle.
This dual nature of all individuals may well come from the Jungian psychological concepts of the ego and the shadow. We’ll discuss them in detail in Chapter 10.
All characters undergo some change during the novel, but the nature of the change for each character will be different. A character who appears in only one scene will experience something that will give him a different perspective. Otherwise your character is a piece of wood. The change in the protagonist will be the most profound.
Types of character change:
The change is called the “character arc.” The conflict will apply pressure to who he is and result in change. The change will result in the character either winning or losing the confrontation, or perhaps transcending it. The character who changes gains an edge on his opponent.
Figure 5 illustrates the change in the protagonist throughout the novel, with the change, and the forces that cause it, broken down. First of all, the essence of the character must be established. This will be followed by that essence being put in jeopardy by identifying a weakness. This will result in the character experiencing the anguish of choice over making a change. The character then struggles to make the change, and this change will be tested at the climax of the story, the three-quarter point, or Second Plot Point. The results, which are demonstrated in the “new” character, are what the entire story is about at the character level.
In Titanic, both Rose and Jack change. In the beginning, because of her overbearing mother, Rose has accepted a marriage proposal from a man she knows will enslave her. She is on the threshold of suicide. By the end of the movie, she has freed herself from those who would control her and is able to stand on her own. She has found her true self.
Jack is not the same person that he was initially either. In the beginning, he was self-centered, living and traveling Europe on his own with no responsibilities but to pursue his artistic interests, but by the end he has become altruistic. When Jack and Rose are in the freezing ocean water and struggling to stay afloat, they reach a piece of wreckage, but it will only support one of them. Jack puts Rose on it, and then he makes her promise that she will live her life as a free woman. He has transferred his allegiance from himself to Rose, and has given his life to save hers.
On the other hand, Rose’s fiancé and her mother do not change internally. They change externally and only increase their opposition to Rose’s rebellion. They both want to keep Rose in servitude. They do not struggle internally. This illustrates a central point concerning character. Generally, the character that undergoes the greatest change is the protagonist. This is where the really interesting part of the story lies: the evolution of character.
In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov is the protagonist. He commits murder, is taken into custody and convicted. The second part of the novel is about his punishment in prison where he is rehabilitated through the help of Sonia, a religious prostitute who has fallen in love with him. Raskolnikov is one of the truly great internally tortured characters in literature, along with Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Everyone should read these two works to learn the extent to which mental anguish can be exploited.
In the long-running TV series, Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, character arc is the single most important reason the series lasted seven years. The characters were constantly growing and changing. Buffy was initially in high school and, in season four, entered college. Her slaying skills, initially rudimentary, became remarkable. During this time, her mother dies, and Buffy has to assume legal responsibility for her sister, Dawn, and their finances. She struggles with becoming fully adult. Willow, Buffy’s best friend and a self-taught witch, is initially so timid that she barely recognized her right to exist, but by the end of season six, she almost destroys the world because of her rage at the murder of a loved one.
THE ANGUISH OF CHOICE
As stated in the previous chapter, the Premise contains hidden within it a universal question, particularly if the conflict is internal or involves two rights, i.e., good vs. good instead of good vs. evil. When the protagonist deals with this question, it will be manifested as the “anguish of choice.” Answering this question, or the failure to do so, will lead to either victory or defeat. In this way, the story comes down to the character against himself, an internal struggle. In Hamlet, the question permeates the entire play in a way it does in few other stories. Hamlet has to take action against his mother, and this leads to the “sublime procrastination” where he even contemplates suicide (“To be or not to be”). Stories in which the protagonist doesn’t exhibit the anguish of choice have little, if any, philosophical depth.
The nature of the anguish will be such that it is in essence a search for identity, the recovery of one’s self. It’s as though the conflict causes the character to discover something about himself that he could not see before. It’s a personal blindness. Finding this missing piece of himself will lead to change, and ultimately to victory.
Don’t underestimate anguish of choice. Search your story for the moments in which your characters will suffer through it. Find these moments and dramatize them. Don’t allow them to happen “off stage” and be described later. This would be a great strategic mistake.
So far, we have talked about the inside of character. The external part of character concerns the persona, what he projects to the outside world. This is the social façade, the mask. This is the “pollen” that has or will collect around the “heart” of the character. The central questions about character creation are: Is the person identifiable? Does he have an identity? What characteristics distinguish him from every other person on the planet?
Any method the author uses that answers these questions will probably work, provided the character has a proper relationship with the storyline. Characters exist only within the story, and generally, should have no attributes unrelated to it. The characters that populate a novel are not as broad as real-life people. This does not mean that they should be stereotypes or stick figures. For example, a complete psychoanalysis of the antagonist might be okay in a story about a serial killer, but might be inappropriate for the main character in a traditional western.
Character identity is more readily discovered than created. You can build his background, a biography for your character, but unless it fits with your original concept of the story, he just won’t work. You can’t arbitrarily make up facts about a character and then shoe-horn him into the story.
Another effective way of developing character is through what other characters say about him. Occasionally a main character will not even appear in the novel, and sometimes what the author leaves out about the main character can be telling. In Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, not only does Rebecca not appear in the novel (she’s dead) but the story’s protagonist, the new Mrs. DeWinter, is never given a name. She has little identity outside that as her husband’s wife. This has been so skillfully executed by the author that the reader rarely realizes it unless told. This has the effect of bringing Rebecca, the missing character, to the forefront and increasing her influence on the entire work.
The character’s identity should exist on many levels. He should be identifiable physically, have a distinctive voice, distinctive actions, emotions, motives, and social status. The point-of-view character (discussed in Chapter 4) must be identifiable internally: the way he thinks, worries, and deals with himself. We will also be able to see into the minds of other characters, but always indirectly.
In ancient Greece, when an actor played a part, he donned a mask, the mask of Dionysus. Dionysus is the patron god of theatre and the god of the mask. Within the domain of Dionysus, illusion exists simultaneously with reality. The mask represents the persona, the illusion of the character, and the author must symbolically don the mask of each of his characters in tern as he writes.
Before we get into building a character, let’s delve into a little psychology. Psychology is kept separate for a reason: psychobabble can destroy a good novel. Still yet, understanding a little psychology can help add depth to a character. Just be careful that you don’t deconstruct the character by using too much narrative insight.
During decades of work as a therapist, Carl Jung developed an extensive theory of personality types. His work, titled simply Psychological Types, is a classic in the field. Jung identified four pairs of preferences: extraversion/introversion, sensation/intuition, thinking/feeling, and perceiving/judging. His theory is that every person has a particular mix, and emphasis, of these preferences. A simple, practical application of Jung’s work in this area is contained in Please Understand Me, Character & Temperament Types by David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates. This book uses the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test as a tool for identifying sixteen different patterns of personality. Even more interesting is that the authors relate these personality types to the professions and interests of individuals. Not everyone is a big fan of this approach to an individual’s psychology, but you as an author don’t have to be a disciple to use this tool for fleshing out a character. I’ve taken the test myself and found it to be amazingly accurate.
Keirsey and Bates also tell us that opposite personality types frequently attract, so that you can gain considerable insight into the secondary characters that your protagonist will bring into his life, and the origin of any conflicts that exists between them. You might consider having each of the characters take the type test. As an example of opposites, one might envision a rather dimwitted man who is attracted to a smart woman. Although he might be attracted to her intellect, he could also feel threatened by her superiority. If these two really care about each other, the good-natured banter between them would enliven the relationship. He might be better at controlling the spending, even though she’d have to balance the checkbook. The possibilities are endless, and these aspects of character don’t just apply to the protagonist and antagonist, but also to the characters involved in the subplots.
Another aspect of character psychology concerns the stages of life we all experience. Books have been written on the subject, the most popular of which, published several years ago, is aptly titled Passages, and was written by Gail Sheehy. Another excellent book is Murray Stein’s In Midlife, which uses the myth of Odysseus’ ten-year odyssey about the Aegean to provide insight into the underlying forces driving the mid-life crisis. This book is also a useful introduction to the relatively new and fascinating field of archetypal psychology.
The way a character presents himself to the world, along with his inherited attributes, speaks volumes about what goes on inside him. A man who combs his hair over his bald spot has a certain insecurity about his appearance. A woman who won’t quit talking is protecting herself from her audience. Some experts will advise you to provide each of your characters with a “tic,” some persistent trait of character or behavior. This gives the author something to describe each time the character comes on the scene and makes the character immediately identifiable to the reader. In Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Gatsby calls Nick “old sport.” This is an affectation that Gatsby assumed to convince people he was an Oxford graduate. The tic fit Gatsby perfectly, because it was part of his false front. This may be a good idea generally, but don’t think that, once you’ve invented a tic, you’ve solved the characterization problem. This tic must fit with the character’s basic nature, and the character must be fully developed in other ways. But it is at least a place to start with your character’s mannerisms, and it’s something to which you can add as you proceed.
As another example, in the movie When Harry Met Sally, Sally had the really irritating habit of giving lengthy instructions to waiters in restaurants. This gave Harry something to play off of, and eventually, he came to find this trying aspect of her personality endearing.
To develop the way a character presents his physical self to the world, you don’t have to tolerate plausibility as an obstacle. Take this example from a recently published novel by Hilary Mantel titled Beyond Black:
Alison was a woman who seemed to fill a room, even when she wasn’t in it. She was of an unfeasible size, with plump creamy shoulders, rounded calves, thighs and hips that overflowed her chair; she was soft as an Edwardian, opulent as a showgirl, and when she moved you could hear (though she did not wear them) the rustle of plumes and silks. In a small space, she seemed to use up more than her share of the oxygen; in return her skin breathed out moist perfumes, like a giant tropical flower. When you came into a room she’d left–her bedroom, her hotel room, her dressing room backstage–you felt her as a presence, a trail. Alison had gone, but you would see a chemical mist of hair spray falling through the bright air. On the floor would be a line of talcum powder, and her scent–Je Reviens–would linger in curtain fabric, in cushions, and in the weave of towels. When she headed for a spirit encounter, her path was charged, electric; when her body was out on stage, her face–cheeks glowing, eyes alight–seemed to float still in the dressing room mirror.17
Note the mixture of concrete physical attributes gradually progressing to the more subjective—as if this was the way that people viewed her—to the clearly untrue and even esoteric. But this woman is a medium, and she projects her profession with her presence and even her absence.
Voice, the way a character speaks, will reveal many things about him: education, social class, mood, and intelligence. Hence, all dialogue carries the indelible style of the character in the same way a fingerprint is unique; therefore, dialogue also distinguishes between characters. Dialogue can’t be written the way people speak, but is presented in edited form. It must be “portrayed.” Voice can be viewed as the author’s act of impersonating the character. The author takes dictation, but it is a strange sort of dictation. Dialogue is a distillation of real life conversation, not a transcription, and frequently only expresses an emotion about the subject, not necessarily factual content.
CHARACTER ACTION: Speaking without words.
What a character does will always speak louder than what the narrator says about him. You can say your character is in an uncontrollable rage, but if the character punches someone in the mouth, you get your point across better. One character may resort to violence to resolve a conflict, whereas another may become subdued, and hide within himself.
Body language is different than other types of action. Body language is the way a person uses his body that unconsciously signals his emotional state. For example, when seated, some people cross their arms or legs when they feel threatened in a conversation. The author should go into a coffee shop and watch the clientele, the way they posture themselves around their friends, and how their actions change when a stranger approaches. Watch the people behind the counter, how they physically change from customer to customer. Learn to detect the ebb and flow of human emotion, signaled by body language.
CHARACTER EMOTION: The pulse of passion.
The degree to which the reader feels the character’s emotions is the degree to which he will believe the character’s actions. Do not tell what the characters are feeling; allow them to express it. Be skeptical of any rules dictating how a character must act. “Experts” frequently say that characters must be passionate and take a definite, single-minded stance in the conflict. One of the most memorable characters, Hamlet, couldn’t make up his mind about anything. Don’t destroy your characters’ originality. In Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist (which was made into a successful movie), the main character wasn’t passionate about anything and lived in a miasma of self-doubt.
Once again, when exposing a character’s psychology don’t resort to psychobabble. You don’t need to be a psychiatrist to write good characters. If you trust your characters, and understand their passions, they will show you how they act through their own impulses. Writing characters is fun and exciting. Go on the adventure with them. The more you become surprised by your characters’ actions, the less you have to worry about technique. Let them lead you into unknown territory.
Characters should have their own motivations and not be subject to the will of the author. The author doesn’t put motivations into the characters but pulls motivations important to the story from within the character. The reader can always tell the source of motivations, and if they don’t come from within the character, the reader will detect it immediately. A good check to ensure that each character becomes real is to ask if each has his own agenda, and whether it shows in his dialogue and actions. They should never simply fulfill the author’s intentions. To accomplish this, the author must “launder” all his intentions toward the storyline through his characters (much as the mob launders drug money through false bank accounts).
CHARACTER SOCIAL STATUS
In addition to pure social class (aristocrat, peasant), profession (king, queen, engineer, mother, commander-in-chief, hobo) will also play a part. In American novels, social class tends to be less important than the section of the country he comes from and his ethnic origin. Working-class Americans constitute the most of us, but we do increasing encounter the very wealthy and the very poor. Political affiliation is becoming increasingly important.
Explicit character thoughts will generally be limited to the point of view character, and in a first-person narration, exclusively those of the narrator. The way people think is different from the way they speak. Their thoughts may reveal a kinder side of themselves that they are afraid to show the world, or an underbelly that is too provocative, corrupt, or violent to let see the light of day. In any case, thoughts will expose another level of character and divulge internal struggles.
As shown in Figure 6, the author funnels all these characteristics into a single character to form his identity, and performs the same activity for each character.
The author should also know things about the character that are not included. Writing a character biography can be helpful, but select only details that play an important part in the story. Approach your characters obliquely, possibly not even as human beings. You might consider describing them as though they are a piece of mechanical equipment, a tree, or an animal. Homer, in The Iliad, describes Agamemnon, the commanding general of the Greek forces at Troy, this way:
Agamemnon’s lordly mien
was like the mien of Zeus whose joy is lightning;
oaken-waisted as Ares, god of war,
he seemed, and deep-chested as Lord Poseidon;
and, as a great bull in his majesty
towers supreme amid a grazing herd…18
We get the picture of him as lion, oak tree, and bull as he is compared to three Greek gods, all of which makes him seem formidable, and ironically, more human. In another description, that from Euripides in his play, Iphigeneia at Aulis, Agamemnon is presented differently. Agamemnon’s brother reminds Agamemnon of how he came to be commander:
…do you remember how humble you were, clasping every man’s hand, keeping your door unlocked to any commoner who wished to enter, and opening yourself to conversation with all and sundry even when they didn’t seek it? You sought by your demeanor to buy advancement from the multitude. Then when you had won office, you changed your manner and were no longer as friendly to your former friends as before: you were hard to approach and kept yourself scarce within doors. The good man ought not to change his character when he fares well.19
Agamemnon now seems approachable. He’s two-faced. He’s further described as uncertain, even cowardly, when it comes time for him to sacrifice his daughter to gain favorable winds from the gods to sail to Troy. Agamemnon is a character in crisis.
A character can, and should, have weaknesses, but when the author discredits a character, even a bad guy, he discredits the novel. All characters should have a center of integrity. Agamemnon acts “cowardly” toward sacrificing Iphigenia because he loves her, and because he is a caring father. Thus, he retains his integrity while also exposing his ruthless nature and craving for power. It also illustrates anguish of choice.
TYPES OF CHARACTERS
We’ve already discussed the protagonist and antagonist. Other types of characters frequently populate novels, and you would do well to realize who they are, since it might help flesh-out the character. Some of the more prevalent character types are discussed below, although the list is far from complete.
a. The Thematic Character
The thematic character conveys special knowledge to the protagonist that gives him an advantage in the conflict. The number of times that a thematic character shows up in a story is absolutely amazing. He is never the protagonist nor the antagonist, but generally has a close relationship with the protagonist. The thematic character will probably be the third most important character after the protagonist and antagonist. His special knowledge is inherently a part of the Premise and is closely related to the nature of the conflict. Thematic characters are historically some of the most interesting ever created and, in many cases, irresistible to readers. They satisfy a basic need in story telling, and probably in the human psyche: a need for wisdom.
Obi-Wan Kenobi is the thematic character in Star Wars. He teaches Luke about the Force, the good and bad of it, which enables Luke to overcome the evil forces of Darth Vader. In the movie Titanic, Jack is the thematic character; he teaches Rose about freedom and warns her of the consequences of social bondage. In the more recent TV series Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, the thematic character is her Watcher, Giles, an Englishman, who comes to the States specifically to advise and train Buffy in the ancient art of vampire slaying. In Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the thematic character is Gandalf. As an immortal wizard, who has lived in Middle-earth for thousands of years, he provides guidance not only to the Hobbits but to all those involved in the war against the evil forces of Sauron.
b. Groups as Characters
Characters don’t have to be individual human beings. They can be families, as in Romeo and Juliet, where the Montagues and the Capulets are feuding and the lovers are caught in the conflict that destroys them; or countries, as in The Hunt for Red October, where the USA and the USSR are in conflict over the desperate search for a rogue nuclear submarine. In this type of story in which larger social forces determine many of the events, these countries as “characters” are treated psychologically as though they are people. Countries exhibit human characteristics: arrogance, anger, jealousy, etc. They will also have an arc.
In short, any social unit can serve as a character and should be structurally treated as such in a novel.
c. Peripheral Characters and Subplots.
Now that we understand how characters relate to the novel, we can start to understand secondary characters and subplots. Subplots have all the characteristics of the main plot, although they may not be a part of the full novel from beginning to end. They have a setup, 1st plot point, mid-course reversal, etc. Each subplot is associated with a secondary character. The subplot conflict will be locked with the entrance of the character. All the subplots will be closely associated with the main storyline. A Premise may be written for each peripheral character involved in a subplot. This Premise will help identify the heart of the character, thus allowing him to become well-rounded within the story. The author can identify the arc associated with each and draw a geometric subplot diagram, just as he has done with the main plot.
In Titanic, the conflict between Jack and Cal (Rose’s fiancé) is a subplot resolved when Rose helps Jack escape from being handcuffed inside the sinking Titanic.
d. Characters Within a Larger Social Context.
In Titanic, the love story between Rose and Jack is played out against the larger story of the sinking of the Titanic. In Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, we witness the lives of highly developed characters played out against the First World War and the Russian revolution. We also see this type of story in The Hunt for Red October, where we have minimal characterization in a story about an international incident involving a nuclear submarine. Other stories of this nature are Carl Sagan’s sci-fi novel, Contact, and a host of volcano-eruption and asteroid-impact movies. What is crucial in this type of story is that the Premise be reflected in both aspects of the storyline, i.e., the conflict involving the characters must be linked with the larger social conflict. In Doctor Zhivago, the main character is a “confessional” poet, a man very much involved in the “personal.” The revolution is about the death of personal life in Russia in favor of a communal life dictated by the state.
Guided by Premise, the author must decide the ultimate fate of his characters. Depending on the type of novel you’re writing and the Premise, each of your characters will meet his appropriate fate. Some will be redeemed on a spiritual level, while others will be left to wallow in their own pettiness. The one who learns from the conflict transcends it and will be redeemed. This constitutes the end of the story.
Of course, many stories (novels and movies) are successful and yet don’t satisfy all the character requirements set forth here. Although other examples certainly exist, many adventure stories fall into this category. The success of these stories is generally due to a charismatic hero who captures the reader’s imagination. Our interest in the hero is peaked by his extraordinary abilities rather than character growth through anguish of choice. Spielberg’s Indiana Jones doesn’t have many moments of profound, personal decision-making. It is his strength, endurance, fighting ability, and that uncanny knack for getting out of trouble that we admire and keeps us returning for each sequel. These movies succeed because of a larger-than-life hero. But these stories don’t cause us to reflect on who we are or necessarily help us mature as human beings. They may, however, send us into the mountains or to a foreign country seeking adventure.
A word of caution about conflict. Conflict is so central to providing story progression and a sense of realism that it must exist even between friends. Human interaction is extremely complex, and any scene that doesn’t have an element of conflict will be flat. However, in recent years there has been a tendency to create sharp, destructive conflict between characters in what would ordinarily be a friendly relationship. Some authors will even say that conflict is the only thing of interest in fiction. This is simply not true. As a matter of fact, bonding between friends is often essential to providing sympathetic, meaningful characters, and is sometimes even central to the story. The moments when they come together to comfort each other can be profound.
Two examples of this that have captured the public’s imagination in recent years are J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Harry Potter without Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger would be dull, if not unimaginable. These three characters, though they do argue, are very close and care for each other deeply. This is also true of the Hobbits in Tolkien’s novel. Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin form a tight-knit group, deeply committed to each other. Authors should not be overly conscious of creating conflict at the expense of friendship.
Another example is Joss Whedon’s TV series Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. Fans of the series are addicted to the interaction between Buffy and her friends and family. In several episodes, friendship has been brought to the forefront as reinforcement; one of the primary reasons Buffy is such a good slayer, and has lived longer than most, is her ability to make and use friends to help her stave off the forces of evil. Slayers don’t generally live long lives.
Yet, stories of the loner action hero are also plentiful. The loner that Clint Eastwood played in some of his earlier films, for example High Planes Drifter, had this quality. We know nothing of his family or friends, his past or what he wants in the future. We don’t even know his name. All this lack of information adds an atmosphere of mystery and a sense of mysticism.
The main point here is to be true to the vision of your characters and story and not rely too heavily on what self-proclaimed experts call “the rules.” Be a renegade. Write about the special bonds between characters. Write something no one has seen before. Just be good at it.
ONE PARAGRAPH SUMMARY
Character and plot are inseparable. The central plot is defined by the conflict between opposing wills, those of the main characters as defined in the Premise. Each of the storyline milestones will test or stress the main character in a new way. This will force a reconsideration of who he is. Characters drive the storyline. The protagonist, antagonist, and thematic character are not just connected to the story: they are the story. Character wishes and fears, along with his resulting decisions, constantly propel the story into the future. Ideas and emotion determine character motivation. Emotion may drive the character in a direction he doesn’t agree with intellectually, creating internal conflict.
(a) Provide a character sketch for each primary character, stating the “heart” or central aspect of each along with their strength and weakness. (b) Draw and label the arc diagram for each character to demonstrate how they change. (c) For secondary characters, and perhaps even those that only momentarily enter the story and never return, consider how that momentary encounter might have an impact and in some way change the secondary character.