Monday, October 11, 2010

“Characters – What They Are To Us”: Elements of the Story, Part 2

Perhaps some of you noticed already, but recently I discovered I have very poor organization skills when it comes to planning certain things… like, for instance, a series on story elements. To be quite honest, when I decided to do this series I never really gave any serious thought to the order in which these story elements should appear. It's a sad confession, I know, but the fact remains – I'm writing these posts as they prove more and more relevant in my own writing life.

That said, let's take a look at our characters, shall we?

*Steps back and shouts into a megaphone*

"Alright you characters from all of my different WIPs, line up! Yes; that means you Aura – and keep away from that spinning wheel! I don't need your handy work messing with my thoughts. Curron, stop playing with your horse and get over here… Broxe don't eat that! Now line up in single file and let me get a good look at you. Gareth! Put that sword down this instant!"

*Pause for reflection*

If we all took a moment to step back and look at our characters – I mean really LOOK at them – what would we see? Most likely they would differ in height, weight, looks, speech patterns, clothing choices, personalities… especially personalities. But there is one thing that almost all characters have in common: they are the driving force of our writings.

Perhaps this sounds slanderous.

"What about the plot?" you say. "What about the problems I have planned? They need to be solved; they are pivotal points of my novel. They are the true driving factors! Plot is everything!"

Hold on a minute there! I never said plot wasn't important. In fact, if you don't have a decent plot then you don't have a decent story, The End. No more arguing about it. But a plot isn't exactly THE driving force behind our writings.

Take a moment to think about where most problems stem from: an older brother takes a younger sibling's belongings and a fight breaks out; a careless boss decides to fire an employee and that employee decides that the best type of revenge is murder; a super evil villain causes a dastardly war.

And now that you've considered where the sources of most literary problems stem from, take another moment to consider their solutions: an ultra powerful hero swoops down and saves everybody from the villain's war; a smart detective solves the case, finds the murderer, and locks him in prison; a father or mother comes along to break up the fight before anyone gets a black eye.

Characters can be everything. The plot basically revolves around them and their choices. When we are writing, they are the element of fiction that creates and maintains the balance between good and evil, right and wrong. If you're writing a fantasy book and you don't have a hero and/or a villain, you're basically lost. Sometimes the hero and the villain are the same person, but there is ALWAYS a hero and a villain.

And there are usually other characters too: those that help the heroes along, give advice, hinder progress, or just act stupid for stupidity's sake. Plot is important, yes, but you don't have a plot if you don't have a character to act out the plot. Without characters you don't have a problem, or even if you do it can't be solved. And half the time people read books so that they can relate to the books' characters in hopes of escaping their own confusing thoughts.

Characters are everything.

Now, let's take an even closer look at them.

What does it take to write a good character?

I'm sure very few of you have really asked yourself that question before, but for just a moment, think about the possible answers. Does it become overwhelming? Even a little bit?

Characters are about as complicated as another Human Being because, essentially, that's what they are. Oh, they may be a different species, for say. – for instance, you may have sentient animal characters, or perhaps you've completely made up a race of creatures that no one has ever heard of before, and these new-fangled "monsters" are your characters – but in any case, whether technically human or not, you have to have some form of base to start off of, and naturally you turn to yourself… to what you know. These days so many people are shooting off at the old "write what you know" saying, especially when it comes down to fantasy and science fiction (hey, I'm a huge fan of those genres too! :D) But perhaps what is not realized is that whether we are trying to or not, we, as writers, naturally base all of what we "don't know" on what we "do know".

For example:

We don't know exactly what an angry gorilla from Pluto might look like, or how it might act, or what it might do.

But we do know that:

A) for a reader to care about a story there should be characters in it for said reader to relate to.

B) for a reader to relate to a character, said character should be sentient.

C) the only truly sentient beings known to exist are humans.

Therefore, in order to create a believable sentient character – human, animal, or otherwise – we look to humans as our examples.

And what, exactly are humans composed of? (Mentally, not necessarily physically… we're looking for psychology here. :D) Actually, the human mind is so complex that it continues to boggle the minds of today's leading scientists. But we do know a few things that are easily used when creating characters.

We know that humans have spirits (or souls… however you refer to them).

We know that no two people are exactly alike in every way, so why should we write our characters from a so-called "Jello mold"? Let's all get creative! Otherwise the world would be boring, and so would our stories.

We also know that people have different personalities: some like spicy foods while other's like their tacos with mild sauce. Some people love to dress flashy, while others are reserved. Some read books, some prefer TV, and others would rather be outside in the garden. Some people are writers (like me!), while some are nurses, and others aren't even sure what they like or what they want to do just yet. Some people get angry quickly, while it takes quite a lot of pressure for others to explode.

Many of us have different abilities: some people are more athletic, while some are quiet thinkers. Some are fast readers while others are fast talkers. Some are more artsy and eccentric, while others consider themselves dignified and poised. Some of us are rockers and really know how to work the instrument we play. Some people have memories beyond what others could possibly comprehend. Some of us are persistent. Some of us are leaders. Some of us are fighters. Some of us are listeners.

And the physical attributes vary as well: black hair, light hair, red hair, skinny bodies, round bodies, stocky bodies, tall people, short people, average people, black skin, white skin, yellow skin, blue eyes, brown eyes, green eyes, black eyes – even purplish black eyes!

We pick a piece here and there from all of these human attributes and we mix and match them until we come up with a character we like. We give them an ability… usually something we feels fits them. Then we add a motive.

What is a motive?

Here's a definition:


mo·tive [mṓtiv]

n (plural mo·tives)

1. reason: the reason for doing something or behaving in a specific way

Encarta ® World English Dictionary © & (P) 1998-2005 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.


While our characters are the driving force of our stories, our character's motives are what drive our characters to drive our stories. A villain can't be a villain if he has no reason to be. The same goes for a hero. Motives are perhaps the trickiest part of character building, because while the plot revolves around the character with the motive, the motive is a huge part of what creates the plot.

Confusing I know.

Let me try it this way:

Character + Motive = Plot

Character + Plot = Story

Get it now?


Your character's motive is the reason that he is where is, doing what he's doing when your story starts. The motive doesn't have to be anything flashy: it can be as simple as your character being a fisherman just for the fact that his father was a fisherman and his grandfather, and great grandfather before him which is why he lives like he does. Or it can be as extravagant as your character becoming an assassin to find the one man that did her wrong and kill him.

Simply put, the motive is the reason your character does what he or she does; it's their purpose and their drive. It gives them a history and a future. It's why they are what they are. It's why we write their stories.

After motive, there's only one thing left that your character must have. It's absolutely essential. At first it may seem like a small thing, but as you go along you'll realize just how huge it really is. But you mustn't stunt on it; you can't hold back, because if you do your character will never be able to be everything he can be. He'll never be complete.

What is this small part that's not quite so small after all?

It's a piece of yourself.

You can't write a novel without pouring yourself into it, heart, mind, and soul; and the place where most of yourself ends up is in the characters. You'll find as you write that your characters pick up some of your traits and, oddly enough, you pick up some of theirs. Some of your characters will end up looking like people you know, people you admire, or even people you despise. One or two of them might even look like you! Your characters become so much a part of you that it starts to take less and less effort to slip into their skin when you write about them. I often find that when I'm struggling with something, if I go sit down and write I can confide in my characters: they've helped me work through some things that I would have really struggled with on my own. I know that sounds strange, but you have to trust them: they may not always do what you want them to when you want them to do it, but they do know what they are doing.

And hey! Give them a break every once in awhile. After all, you're the one beating the heck out of them! :D


Jake said...

Characters are THE driving force? O.o You have a debate forming here. :)

Did you ever read the post I wrote about Plot vs. Character? I basically said that plot and character both drove a story. In one way, the character drives the plot and both together drive the story.

I'm not sure if you touched on this or not, but what do you think the GOAL of a novel is?

Star-Dreamer said...

Actually, I did mention that jake. :) I said that you can't have a plot without a character -- which is true -- but there's no point in having a character if you don't have a plot.

However... think of it this way; characters and plots are both important, but if you have a plot and no character you can't write a story, where as if you have a character you can build off of nothing and create a plot.

First and foremost, all plot-points stem from something a character does... unless it's a storm or something, which then becomes a form of nature. But you can't have an evil war if someone didn't start that war. And you can't have someone win the war without a character acting somehow, even if that winning the war is the most important part of your plot.

Does that make any more sense?

This is what I wrote:

"The plot basically revolves around [characters] and their choices. When we are writing, they are the element of fiction that creates and maintains the balance between good and evil, right and wrong. If you're writing a fantasy book and you don't have a hero and/or a villain, you're basically lost. (even if your plot is amazing. :D) Sometimes the hero and the villain are the same person, but there is ALWAYS a hero and a villain.

"Plot is important, yes, but you don't have a plot (or very much of a story) if you don't have a character to act out the plot. Without characters you don't have a problem, or even if you do it can't be solved."

I hope this resolves any troubling questions about which I think is more important: quite frankly, I do believe that characters are the more important element, but plot is only about 1/2 step behind. If quite that. :D

Galadriel said...

I love the idea of lining up your characters--mine would be so hard to drag out from all their hidey-holes.

Star-Dreamer said...

Galadriel: lol! Yeah, mine didn't want to really come out, and those that finally did were grumbling about it. :D

Son of the King said...

Thanks for posting this Star-Dreamer!

Seth Skogerboe said...

Have you got my story that I sent you? if not, email me at

Eldra said...

I agree that if you don't have a character, you don't have a plot, I am a character-driven writer, though, so that's just me. Plots are my weak point.

And I'm shocked that you managed to get all your characters to stay in the same place. Mine would be at each other's throats in about two seconds. :)

Star-Dreamer said...

Eldra: they didn't want to behave, but I threatened to put them through horrors in their stories -- more than what they are already going through -- and that shut them up for a little while. :D