Characters are the backbone of any story. The simple fact is, no matter how exciting the plot, if your characters aren’t compelling, the reader won’t care. Why should they invest in your hero’s love life
Characters are the backbone of any story. The simple fact is, no matter how exciting the plot, if your characters aren’t compelling, the reader won’t care. Why should they invest in your hero’s love life or career if they don’t particularly care about him as a person?
You may have begun with certain characters in mind. Now you need to develop them, learn what makes them tick. Make them memorable. Or maybe you started with a concept or situation, and now have to choose through whose eyes to tell your story.
Today’s post will cover how to choose your characters, and the most basic elements needed to develop them. In Part 2 we’ll discuss how to dig deeper and determine their character arcs.
First things first. Who are your characters? How many should you have? How do you decide? We’ll start with the major categories.
Remember that word from high school English classes? Just in case, let me clarify.
protagonist- the character whose actions drive the plot of a story
Not to be confused with “hero” or “main character.” Though these roles are often combined, they have distinct qualities. A hero is defined by his noble actions and intentions. The main character is the one closest to the audience, through whose eyes the story is told.
In The Shawshank Redemption Andy is the protagonist. His skills and choices are the reason there’s a plot at all. Without him, it’s just Red and the guys going on as they always have. But Red is the main character. We see the story through his eyes and know only what he knows. That’s why there was an unusually long resolution. Red’s character arc needed a climax too.
Similarly, Sherlock Holmes is the protagonist of his stories, but Watson is the main character. On the other hand, Macbeth is both protagonist and main character, but he certainly doesn’t qualify as a hero.
So who is your protagonist? If you don’t have one in mind already, how do you decide? A simple rule is to look at those affected by the primary conflict. Who has the most at stake, the most to risk or gain? Theirs is the story you want to tell. But if you started with a character, make sure the plot impacts them directly and severely. It should strike at their deepest core.
One final thing- make sure you create a protagonist, not only a main character or hero. Their actions must drive the plot. It’s not enough to have them wring their hands while terrible things happen. A book about Katniss as she watches her sister fight in the Hunger Games wouldn’t be much of a story. Even frantic activity isn’t enough, if it doesn’t impact the plot. Your protagonist must be the author of their own fate to deserve the name.
antagonist- the character/force which opposes the protagonist
Every book needs an antagonist. Without one, you have no conflict, and therefore no story. But it doesn’t have to be a villain, or even a person. Antagonists can take many forms.
The Impersonal Antagonist– Think back to those high school English classes again. Do you remember learning about Man vs. Nature, Man vs. God, Man vs. Self, etc? Many of those categories have an impersonal antagonist. It could be nature (survival stories like Cast Away, The Perfect Storm, the asteroid in Armageddon), a disease (cancer in The Fault in Our Stars), or even a blind force like fate (Oedipus the King). This is by no means a comprehensive list, but you get the idea.
The only requirement is that it directly oppose your protagonist’s primary goal. The most obvious option is threatening their life, but it’s not the only one. In Til We Have Faces (an excellent novel by C.S. Lewis), the protagonist rails against the gods for marring the relationship she had with her sister.
The Non-Evil Antagonist– Not every story has a bad guy. Sometimes the antagonist is simply the person competing with your protagonist for the love of his life or the job of his dreams. In The Notebook, Lon is arguably as nice as (or maybe nicer than) Noah.
In this case, it’s important to emphasize what the goal means to your protagonist. It’s easy to root against evil. But if you want your readers to root against a perfectly nice guy (or at least, not an evil one), give them a good reason. You can:
- give the reader time to invest in the protagonist and their goal before introducing the antagonist, as in The Notebook.
- give them stronger reasons to want the goal. They could have more at stake, or more people depending on the outcome. In Liar, Liar Jim Carrey risks losing his son, and the boy risks losing his dad. So we’re rooting for him even though Carey Elwes’ character is easily the better person.
- give the antagonist a flaw that we can dislike. As nice as Carey Elwes was in Liar, Liar, he was a bit annoying.
The Villain– Of course sometimes you just need a bad guy. There are tons of examples of these, from the world threatening Sauron and Voldemort to the blonde bully in The Karate Kid. It’s fun creating bad guys readers love to hate! The important thing is to make sure your villain doesn’t become a caricature. They should be developed as thoroughly as your protagonist.
“You don’t really understand an antagonist until you understand why he’s a protagonist in his own version of the world.”
– John Rogers
Who will be there to help (or hinder) your protagonist on their journey? Your supporting cast can go a long way towards making your story memorable. In fact, they often become people’s favorite characters. But with a whole world of people to choose from, who is best for your story?
**Tip** First time writers tend towards redundancy. Examine your characters. You may realize you have two fulfilling the same role. Where possible, combining them will strengthen your story. Plus, each character adds layers of complexity to the plot, and it’s difficult for even experienced authors to pull off a large cast well.
Now, on to the problem at hand- how to pick the right supporting cast for your book.
The Needs of the Plot
You can simply look to your story. Who is already part of your protagonist’s life? Who would naturally be involved in the conflict? If your protagonist is looking for love, there might be several potential dates, friends they go out to bars with, exes. Maybe family members who have varying opinions about their singleness. When they finally meet the one they want, there could be competition for their affections.
The sidekick, the mentor, the love interest. Character archetypes abound. This can be a good way to ensure you don’t have multiple people filling the same role. Everyone has their own take on them:
Based on their role in the story-
- Hero’s Journey (mentor, ally, trickster, herald, etc)
- Dramatica Theory (reason/emotion, sidekick/skeptic, etc)
Based on personality-
- 12 Common Archetypes (innocent, explorer, rebel, etc)
- 45 Master Characters by Victoria Schmidt- a longer read, since it’s a book, but very thorough
However you go about it, you should consider creating character foils. What is a foil, you ask? It is someone who is the exact opposite of another character in some aspect. Like the Odd Couple (or Bert & Ernie, if you prefer) their personalities, beliefs, or values play off of and highlight each other, making both more interesting and memorable. Foils are also great for exploring themes, as they can present different points of view or approaches to an issue.
In Pride and Prejudice, Jane won’t believe bad of anyone while Elizabeth relishes her bad opinions. Their sense of propriety contrasts with the giddy folly of their mother and younger sisters. And of course, Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley are a study in contrasts.
Now that you know who your characters are, how do you make them real people your readers will love, hate, or root for?
A character’s goals drive the plot forward. Without them, the most exciting story will fall flat. Just a series of events with no purpose. This is true for your supporting cast, and even minor characters. Even with a group goal, each member should have their own unique reasons or version.
“Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
Make sure your antagonist has a goal too. And “killing the protagonist” won’t cut it. A villain who is evil for the sake of being evil is cartoonish. The protagonist gets in the way of their goal- they aren’t the goal itself. Even Voldemort had plans beyond Harry Potter. He just needed to get rid of him first.
Types of Goals
Primary goal– the point of the story, won’t be reached until the end. This must be strong enough to keep them going, even in their darkest hour. A glass of water won’t do for that! It should also be specific and concrete. “I want to be happy” is too vague, but “I want to win the competition so that I will be happy” will do nicely.
Secondary goals– these may or may not be achieved at all. Multiple goals make characters realistic (we all want more than one thing) and can provide excellent conflict within the story. What happens when they are diametrically opposed to one another? Which will they choose?
Scene goals– often a smaller piece of the above goals. If they want to win a competition, the scene goal might be to find the best teacher/coach, or scrounge up enough money to enter.
Strengths and Weaknesses
All your characters should have both good and bad qualities. Real people are complex, made up of both light and dark, and this should be true of your characters as well. Otherwise you’ll get a Mary Sue, a wish-fulfillment character. This is the beautiful, smart, sweet girl whose only flaw is not realizing how wonderful she is. And maybe she’s clumsy. I’m looking at you, Bella Swan. Most readers find such characters annoying at best. Is that the effect you’re going for?
The same holds true for your antagonist. They should be every bit as complex as your protagonist. Even bad guys have a history and some redeeming qualities.
“A villain is just a victim whose story hasn’t been told.”
**Tip** These qualities on their own will make your characters more realistic and rounded. But if you really want to build an airtight plot, everything should serve a purpose. Each strength and flaw should have a part to play in the larger story.
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Tune in next time for Part 2. We’ll dig deeper into your characters and learn how they can (and should) change over the course of the story.