Six impossible things

What type of character?

Characters are the heart of a story; practically everyone says so. There are reams of writing advice covering how to come up with great characters, how to make them “round”, how to make them grow and change over the course of a book, and so on.

Much of this advice is only good for the set of writers who don’t actually need it, because either they’ve already figured it out and are doing it, or they do great, well-rounded, grow-and-change, complex characters as naturally as breathing.

For a load of other writers, this advice is moderately to totally useless. Some just don’t construct people that way. I can do plot by putting little lego-pieces of incident and idea and twist together until it makes a pleasing shape, but if I try to take a childhood trauma and some unusual physical feature and a few interesting skills and personality traits and mix them into a character, I get something that resembles trying to mix dishwater and diesel fuel. I can fool myself that it’s coming together (unattractively) as long as I keep stirring madly, but the minute I stop, the components separate out into layers that simply do not work.

The problem with a lot of the advice is that it seldom takes into consideration the needs of the story. This can create jarring problems for the writer who starts with an idea or a plot or a chunk of backstory. Even writers who normally start with a character or three, set them in motion, and develop their plot from there can run into trouble, especially if their starting protagonist is reasonably happy with who/what/where they are and doesn’t particularly want things to change.

A character who is driven by a need to achieve some goal will keep the story moving until they either achieve that goal or accept the fact that they will never get there. It doesn’t really matter whether the need is an external one (like “to find the real murderer” or “to steal the starship plans” or “to cure the plague”) or an internal one (like “to be the best” or “to never fail” or “to be in control of my life”), though external drivers tend to provide clearer and more obvious gateways into plots.

One does, however, occasionally run into a character who is driven by the need to be left alone, or to not get mixed up in whatever plot the writer is presenting him/her with. In this case, as in the case of someone who is happy in their starting position, one of three things generally happens: 1) the story becomes a plotless character study; 2)  the writer must find external drivers to kick the character into motion and keep him/her moving, like framing him/her for murder; 3) the writer must dump the character into a situation that activates a fundamental human drive like “survival” (as in “castaway” stories like Robinson Crusoe).

Similarly, some stories require the central characters not to change, because the point of the story is something other than the character’s epiphany. James Bond doesn’t become a better person (or a worse one) by the end of every novel, not even in small increments. One can also write stories in which it isn’t the characters who change, but the world around them, as well as stories about the tragedy of a character the reader recognizes as someone who needs to change, but can’t bring him/herself to do so. And of course, stories of the honorable character who steadfastly – and rightly – resists the temptation to change for the worse (e.g., refusing to take a bribe).

For writers who start with a story, a background, an idea, a theme, or some combination of these, it is often worth stopping for a moment to think about what kinds of character(s) the story needs. Do you need a protagonist who is internally driven, or would the story work even with a main character who really wants to sit in the basement and play video games all day? Does the story need an action-oriented Bond-like character, or a quiet, introspective observer? A character who learns or grows or changes, or one who is too busy to do so, or one who actively fights changing?

It can also be productive to think about what it might do to the story to put a different type of character in the lead role, especially if one is writing in a genre that has fairly clear expectations. What happens to the story if you deliberately take a James Bond character-and-plot and cast C3P0 as the “super-spy”? Or replace the Bond-villain with Hamlet?

A writer who starts with the characters needs to ask the same kinds of questions, but in reverse. You have a character who you want to be your protagonist. Is he/she internally driven, or someone you will have to force into action? In the former case, your story is likely to be continually coming up with bigger and better obstacles to throw in front of your relentlessly advancing protagonist; in the latter, you’ll need an outside force (plane crash, volcanic eruption, persistent antagonist) to get your character moving and keep him/her moving. Does the character need to grow up, deal with some past event, or change his/her opinions about something? Or is he/she someone who refuses to change – and would that refusal be heroic or tragic under the circumstances?

What kind of character fits the story you want to write? What kind of story will show off the coolness of the character you have made up and love? What kind of character or story is going to be the most fun for you to write?

  1. Much of this advice is only good for the set of writers who don’t actually need it…

    Thank you for saying that! I can’t imagine creating characters using the lists and worksheets that I’ve seen some folks recommending. Your dishwater-and-diesel-fuel metaphor expresses my feelings perfectly. My brain just doesn’t work that way!

    I tend to develop characters by poking at my setting and discovering the character who will be maximally bothered/distressed/challenged by that setting.

    My biggest problem tends to be getting the character, who is very real in my head, adequately expressed on the page, which is where the reader encounters him or her.

    • I find advice along the lines of making characters be “maximally challenged” or face “the worst thing that can happen” to be… problematic. When I try to do something like that, I get characters who fail and die before the end of Chapter 1. The End. No Story.

      In any case I’ve read a surfeit of stories where the main character is someone inexperienced or ignorant who finds himself in way over his head. So he has to scramble and rely on a huge helping of luck and/or author’s favor. Tolkien got away with that in The Hobbit and LOTR – but he was Tolkien.

      I don’t want to add to that pile. I’d rather read – and write – about Highly Competent Characters Doing Difficult Things.

      • My characters are not generally inexperienced or in over their heads.

        For an example of what I meant:

        In my novel Livli’s Gift, the culture has men and women living separately in women’s lodges and men’s lodges.

        They meet only at festival celebrations, roughly ten times per year. The babies are cared for by their mothers in the women’s lodge. When a boy baby reaches the age of 2-1/2 years, he goes to live with his father in the men’s lodge.

        So my protagonist is a young woman who absolutely refuses to give up her son. And the story is of how she manages to do it.

  2. Highly Competent Characters Doing Difficult Things

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