Characters. Critical to an engaging novel
- The Nature of Character
- Protagonist vs. Antagonist ( and the rise of conflict)
- Main Characters
- Walk-on Characters
- Character CV
The Nature of Character
Let’s face it; characters are the bedrock of your fiction. Plot is just a series of actions that happen in a sequence, and without someone to either perpetrate or suffer the consequences of those actions, you have no one for your reader to root for or wish bad things on. — Icy Sedgwick, quote from He was a man of good character
We’re all characters in our own real-life novel or pantomime soap opera. We are the celebrities in our lives.
What makes us grow is not just the education and experience we gain, but the interaction with the people who journey through our lives, whether they be good or bad influences. Good experiences will always bring us joy, and bad experiences will test our mettle
“Most people carry their demons around with them, buried down deep inside. Writers wrestle their demons to the surface, fling them onto the page, then call them characters.” ― C.K. Webb
Our personal character and the characters we meet on planet earth are what define good or bad experiences. Both joy and conflict take us forward.
Fiction writing is about stories within a particular genre. We expect the novels in the genres we like to be similar in nature, but what makes them stand apart are the characters within each book, more importantly, how the characters interact and deal with the world that us writers invent for them.
Protagonist vs. Antagonist (and the rise of conflict)
Whether you’re writing in the first person or third person Point of View (POV), you will have to convey your character’s personality without boring the reader by telling them about the person. You have to show them who the character is with engaging dialogue, decisive actions and brief descriptions, all which allow the reader to paint a picture in their mind.
Your characters have to be larger than life. They have to exist and operate at 100% of their capabilities. In the real world, people are scared and hesitant, ambling through their lives, going from one point to another at half their potential. Fictional protagonists and antagonists have to be at full capability, or the reader will get bored. If they wanted real life, they could just pick up a newspaper.
The most important lesson to remember is that the interaction between the protagonist and antagonist has to be based on conflict.
Even if you find the bad guy generally repulsive, you need to be able to put yourself so thoroughly into his shoes while you’re writing him that, just for those moments, you almost believe his slant yourself — K.M. Weiland, a quote from Maybe Your Bad Guy Is RIGHT!
Batman vs. the villains
I’ve always love this comic book series because it is a great example of conflict. In essence, it’s a three-way conflict scenario. Brice Wayne has an internal conflict with the Dark Knight he becomes each night, as well as the external conflicts with the colourful psychopaths he is forced to do battle with. This mixture of internal conflict cleverly uses dialogue with, Alfred his butler, to externalise it, and is different from the dialogue with the Joker who has long realised their need for one another.
Clarice vs. Hannibal Lecter
Once of my favourite books is Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. The conflict between Clarice and her FBI Director, and later with Hannibal himself is scintillatingly written by Harris. I have read it a few times just to marvel at the character arcs that he produced. The characters need each other to move forward and validate the choices that they have made. Harris truly mastered the psychological dialogue here, and the book should be studied if you are writing thrillers.
These are the people who will deliver the story that you are trying to write. Yes, you are the narrator in many cases, but you’ll bore the reader if you constancy tell them what is happening. You have to show the reader the story through action and engaging dialogue. The main characters bring your work to life in the reader’s mind. They’re the ones that take the novel forward, and it always has to be in a forward motion.
Conflict: Moving the characters from one conflict to another will keep the reader enthralled as long as they feel the character moving forward both in fictional growth and the plot of the story.
In the 3-act structure, something challenging befalls our hero in the first 25% of the novel. They will then spend the next 50% of the book fighting their demons, psycho serial killer, or giant shark until the last 25% of the book, where the character finds a conclusion, reassuring the girl, or killing the villain.
Your job as a writer is to take the reader through the character arc and keep them hooked so that they continue to turn the pages to find out what happens.
“Be sure not to discuss your hero’s state of mind. Make it clear from his actions.” (Letter to Alexander Chekhov, May 10, 1886)” ― Anton Chekhov
Two-dimensional or walk-on characters perform functions that enable your main characters to keep on track with their storyline. You don’t go into too much depth into the two-dimensional character other than maybe a little description if they are to appear in a few scenes. Is it vital that you build an image in the reader’s mind, or will it just confuse them? These characters could be team members that your main protagonist bonds with or takes a dislike too. It could be the postman who delivers a parcel who turns out to be a witness to a murder. Taxi drivers, waitresses and bar staff are written in to allow your character to progress. Walk-ons can be great dialogue foils that allow you to lay in a little history about the character without boring the reader with pages of backstory.
Remember that writing pages backstory stops the forward motion of your work (don’t get me started on flashbacks). The action or the building up of a scene stops as you force the reader to look backwards. Two-dimensional characters ask the questions that allow the main protagonist or antagonist to keep a forward arc, while you tell the reader more about the main character.
You have to get to know your main characters intimately, and the character CV is a brilliant tool. It will help you to move between them quickly and seamlessly while you write. As a writer, it’s important to immerse yourself in character, so you don’t have them say or do something that the reader feels is ‘out of character’. They will pick up on this pretty quickly.
I’m working on two series at the moment, and many of my main and secondary characters are present throughout the series, so I need to maintain the continuity (or growth) of each character. My character CV’s are printed out and next to me as I write.
“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.” ― Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing
Re-read the fourth page in the Writing Tip series – Part 4 – Outlines and Plans.
Or, move onto the sixth page – Part 6 – Sitting down to Write
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