At the heart of every successful novel are good characters. And by ‘good’ I don’t mean a character who never does anything bad, is kind to small animals and children, and never swears. Well written characters bring a story to life and give the reader someone to care about, root for, or even love to hate.
Characters aren’t like real people.
Real people are complex, contradictory and paradoxical. A character in a story is a sketch of a real person, with just enough detail to make them believable. It’s the reader’s imagination that fills in the gaps and brings your characters to life. This doesn’t mean your characters should be simple or black and white. A stereotype makes for a very bad character.
So what makes a good character?
Character Equals Story
You create a character in order to tell a story, so the character must serve the story. What this story is, depends upon the character.
In fact, the story arises from the character. The protagonist is driven by desires and inner conflict to seek something they believe they need, and this is what will drive the story. If your character doesn’t want anything, you have no story.
So every character should want something, even if it’s just a perfect cup of tea, and the story follows them in their quest.
The best stories have characters that reflect and embody the conflict at the heart of the story. That conflict is the theme, or premise, and a good main character will dramatise the premise of your story. In other words, without the protagonist, the story wouldn’t happen.
The story unfolds the way it does because the character is the way they are.
For example, in Prey by Michael Crichton, the protagonist is Jack Forman. He’s an unemployed programmer, stuck at home all day looking after his kids, and losing his focus and motivation. He drifts into dealing with a problem with some runaway nanotechnology almost by accident. He doesn’t really want to do it. It just kind of happens. It forces him to come out fighting – for his life.
The theme of the novel is that humans don’t really know what they’re doing; they stumble into discoveries and new technologies without really thinking it through and end up causing themselves more problems – often life threatening ones – just like Jack does in the story.
A bad example of a main character is Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. The ‘symbologist’ is called in to decipher a code and gets embroiled in a story which really has nothing to do with him. He has no personal stake in what unfolds. He’s a cipher designed to deliver the plot. Dan Brown tried to make the character more ‘rounded’ by giving him a random character flaw – Langdon suffers from claustrophobia. But this has no effect on the unfolding of the story. It doesn’t stop him chasing down clues or prevent his escape from the bad guys. All in all, it makes for a pretty flat experience as a reader.
Sanctus by Simon Toyne is an example of what The Da Vinci Code could have been. The main protagonist is journalist Liv Adamsen. But she’s not chasing the story because she’s a journo. She’s chasing it because her brother is the centre of the mystery – the brother she hasn’t seen for 8 years and believed was dead. The fact that these two characters are twins is central to the plot and directly puts Liv’s life in danger. She is literally the only person who can solve the mystery. The character is intimately entwined into the story.
Character or Story?
So when you’re constructing a story, do you begin with the character or with the story?
It would seem the best solution is to start with your premise or story idea and then find a character to embody it. This can be a useful approach because the premise and theme will help you to fill in character details, which will then suggest story developments you can plug back into your plot.
However, in practice it rarely works this way – at least, not for me. In reality ideas often spring upon you fully loaded with characters. It seems that the story and characters arrive together. If this happens you’ll need to check that your protagonist is the right man or woman for the job.
Before you launch into writing the story, you can deconstruct your characters and tweak them to fit the premise. Do this as early into the writing as possible – at the outline stage – and when you come to write the story, your characters will work perfectly.
None of this planning and preparation will stop your characters from revealing hidden secrets or changing their nature completely while you’re writing the story. There’s not much you can do about this except learn to trust the process. Keep checking in with your premise to make sure you’re not wandering too far astray, and trust what comes up. Letting your characters dictate the plot and declaim their own dialogue isn’t always a bad thing, but then, that depends on how well written they are in the first place…