Sorry to interrupt your normal Fun Friday silliness, but my discussion of plot went on a day longer than I had planned. Rather than cut short what was shaping up to be a fairly decent discussion of plotting, I decided to bump Fun Friday this week. Fear not, it shall return next week!
Today, I want to talk about characters. If you missed my discussions on writing the rest of the week, I’d encourage you to skim back through.
What is the point of STORY? Why tell a story at all?
Those are two questions every writer must ask at some point.
It’s really the heart of why we write. The answers to these questions will define us as we approach our craft. (Hint: the answer has nothing to do with selling a book or making money).
Story exists because life exists, and no two lives are lived the same. Whereas one may take the gift of life they’re given and use their time on Earth to climb mountains and kayak rivers, another may graduate high school, get a factory job, marry, and never leave the city where they were born.
Story also exists because there is no owners’ manual for life. Sure, we have religions built around faith, but what can The Holy Bible specifically tell a clumsy seventeen year old boy about asking a popular, pretty girl to prom? Sure, the Bible tackles the big questions—do unto others, love overcomes hate, the ten commandments—but there’s no chapter or verse about swagger, about how to approach that pretty girl, about how to get her interest in the first place and keep it long enough to land that date. And that, my friends, is why STORY exists.
People read stories to find inspiration, hope, escape, sometimes even advice—but mostly we seek that commonality of day-to-day existence. We want to be able to put ourselves into the story, to experience it, to feel it as though we were there.
Above all else, STORY has to be entertaining. The reader must feel compelled to turn page after page, read paragraph after paragraph, and follow the story through from beginning to end.
And what compels readers more than anything? Character.
As you’re putting Lego bricks in your bucket, you must keep this in mind. The whole of storytelling exists because character. Your main character must be someone the reader wants to read about. It wouldn’t hurt if the character reminded the reader of themselves, either. At some point, the reader must become emotionally invested in the character enough to keep reading. They must root for the character, or at the very least, decide that they’d be sad if the character died.
Characters must change.
Unless you’re plotting a straight-on action epic with completely flat characters, then you must decide what needs to change and steer the character toward that change over the course of your story. That, ultimately, is the reason you’re piling Lego brick on top of Lego brick.
There are two types of characters in any story. Rounded characters and flat characters. Flat characters pop in and out of your story, serving a function and then moving on. They can play important roles in the story but the reader never gets a chance to be invested in them. They are one-dimensional, not really changing, more or less props for the story at hand. These characters, you won’t worry so much about. They serve a purpose, nothing more, so you don’t need to worry much more about writing them than you would writing about a wrench or a blowtorch.
Rounded characters will be your main characters, right at the forefront of your story, your HERO and HEROINE, maybe even your BAD GUY.
But since we’re talking about character now, it’s time to abandon these terms HERO and BAD GUY. In their place, we shall now adopt the terminology PROTAGONIST and ANTAGONIST.
PROTAGONIST is the center point of the story. The protagonist takes the journey, has the goal, and is who the audience will identify with. This is the character for whom change is vital.
ANTAGONIST, on the other hand, can be a person or a non-personal force that opposes the protagonist’s journey.
See, it doesn’t have to be a bad guy at all. Your story could be about an astronaut adrift in space, trying to get home, and the antagonist would be the malfunctioning spaceship that’s crumbling around him, refusing to operate for even the simplest of functions. The astronaut’s desire is to go home, the spaceship’s opposition to that is falling apart a piece at a time, one system failure after another.
If your antagonist is, indeed, a person, they can be a flat character. No depth, no growth, only opposition. Many classic movie villains are like this—think over-the-top JAMES BOND villains from the ’60s. Or your antagonist can be as round and vibrant as the protagonist. There is only one rule with antagonists, and that is this: they must be as strong as, if not stronger, than the protagonist.
Ideally, these two forces will be larger than life, two immovable objects hurled toward collision.
Think of it like this: what’s the point in a weak villain? You don’t see scrawny guys in professional wrestling, do you? Or children? Imagine a child came into the wrestling ring, talking smack against one of those big, muscle-bound guys. Would it really be entertaining to watch that big guy body slam a 5 year old? Wouldn’t that be what we’d expect to happen?
In writing, you want the outcome to be in question until the very last second. To always want the possibility—even the probability—of failure to be pressing hard on your protagonist’s back.
If your protagonist is a 300-lb athlete, your villain can’t be a 70-lb weakling. Unless that 70-lb weakling has created a bionic suit that gives him super human strength. And if your protagonist is the astronaut and the antagonist is the malfunctioning space ship, the problem has to be bigger than a blown fuse or a tripped circuit breaker that can be fixed after a few minutes of rational thought.
In a very real sense, the antagonist is the force that brings about change in the protagonist. And your protagonist must change, whether they come to an internal realization that change is necessary or whether forces out of their control act upon them and bring about change unwillingly.
Now, there is no rule in writing that your protagonist has to be a good guy and your antagonist a bad guy. Take, for example, the gangster story. The protagonist may be a murderous thief who uses machine guns to get his way and the antagonist could be the FBI agent assigned to take him down. If we, as readers, identify with the mobster as the protagonist, then by the end we’ll be rooting for someone who is essentially a bad guy.
Funny how that works, ain’t it?
Now that we’ve established what a protagonist is, let’s look at their journey.
Typically, the need for change is brought about by a FATAL FLAW. Perhaps the protagonist is a young man who is naive and blindly trusting. Those two traits would be his fatal flaw. Throughout the story, naivety gets him in trouble. By the end of the story, after he’s defeated the antagonist, we see that he is no longer naive, but that he’s learned to be jaded from his journey.
Sometimes the fatal flaw is more of a device used to bring about climax. In our gangster story above, let’s say the protagonist has a crippling gambling addiction. He can’t be around a roulette wheel or a card table without putting big money into play. Then, because of gangster business he must attend to, he travels to Las Vegas, where he’s lured into a casino because of his addiction. The FBI agent chasing him realizes this will happen and scouts casinos until he finds the gangster, who up until then has spent the whole story evading the FBI. The fatal flaw in this case would be quite literal; our protagonist’s death (or at least the death of his gangster lifestyle) would be directly brought about by his fatal flaw.
The key to using a fatal flaw is to cue it early in the story and keep going back to it. Each time you go back to it, raise the stakes, until the character has to make the ultimate choice: defeat the flaw or let it kill him (or at least kill his quest).
Think of your fatal flaw as kryptonite to Superman, a silver bullet to a werewolf, or a steak through the heart to a vampire. It doesn’t have to be the only flaw—indeed it shouldn’t be—but it is the key to ultimate transformation or ultimate doom.
Humor, compassion, intelligence, selflessness—these are all traits that make a character likeable. But as you’re assembling those Lego bricks of story, keep the idea of a fatal flaw in mind and use that to ratchet up the tension in that big blue thing you’re building.