What is the central point of characters in your novel? Their raison d’etre? The essence of why they exist?
We can answer that in myriad ways. Because of course, characters can be anything from of tertiary importance to the entire reason the novel exists.
And everything in between.
But when boiled down to the very essence of their beings, characters are there to drive the plot.
Yep, we talk in terms of character- or plot-driven novels. And yep, books do lean one way or another. But just like talking about good vs evil within people, we are all, and novels are all, mixtures of both and everything in between. As Elisabeth Kubler Ross says, “There’s a little of Hitler in all of us.” Including your good-to-the-bone hero.
And even the most plot-driven book must have believable, memorable characters.
Otherwise no one remembers it.
Now I, too, can point to many bestselling books and authors with flat, unimagined characters. We all can. But they are the exceptions to the rule, and not what an aspiring novelist wants to emulate.
So, what goes into creating fabulous folks on the page? How do you get from first inception to The End, with people populating your story whom readers remember long after that final page?
How do you actually ensure that your plot changes your characters, and your characters drive your plot?
We’ll discuss all of that in the coming weeks, dive deeply into what makes all of the characters work, from the Protagonist to the Antagonist, from the secondary folks to the minor ones. From what makes them believable as well as memorable, to the pitfalls we can easily avoid.
With some planning. And more importantly, some understanding.
To begin we’ll dissect who, actually these people are.
What makes them tick? What do you, as the writer, need to know about each and every one? How do you find out the cores of their beings in order to portray them on the page without writing a tome on each one? How, exactly do you get to that?
Then we’ll ask, where do they go? Not just in the physical travels of the book, which is of course the plot. But deeper than that—where do they go within? What are the central issues of your Protagonist as he navigates the rough waters of your story, whether those seas are the windswept deserts of the Old West or the glassy rivers of a kayaker training for the Olympics?
In other words, all-genre inclusive.
How do they get to where they’re going? That seems simple enough, no? But it’s through the trials and tribulations, the meeting of allies and enemies, that your character’s metal is tested. That’s where secondary and even tertiary characters become of paramount importance in either aiding or thwarting his quest.
And mastering that will ensure you never end up in those dreaded sagging middles. Because you’ll have too much going on—both internally and externally—with your characters and story to ever create that lulling bog out of which no one comes back.
What do they learn? This deals with who they are, from Part One. All people have central issues—core fears, beliefs, desires, failings. And through the course of this story—where they go, how they get there, the issues and demons they face—they’ll either master or they will fail in their outer conquests as well.
The internal conflicts do of course mirror the external ones, and we’ll talk about how to make that all work.
What do they achieve? Does your hero find the Holy Grail, whatever she deems that to be? Does she find a piece of it (if this is a series), to come back and fight another day? Does he scale that mountain? Swim that sea? Slay that dragon? Die trying?
All of those work, depending upon what sort of novel you’re writing. In a Tragedy our hero pretty much has to die. But he reaches the Grail before doing so, as Augustus McCrae in opening up the Montana territory for cattle ranchers.
Then does he reenter society and bring back the boon, or is the promise implied that he will do so?
All heroes must, in the end. Although this part is quite short and sweet.
And last but not at all least, how does he change and grow?
Remember those failings, those issues, those less-than-stellar traits we learned of in Part One? Which of those has he bettered, mastered, like the alchemist turned the brass into gold?
And how did that influence the climax?
Because it must, you know, for your novel to be satisfying in the end.
The simple reason is that for a story to work, the characterization and plotting can’t be divorced.
And although we dissect them somewhat separately in order to understand how to make all this fit together into one whole, plot and characters are forever married, for better or for worse.
So, come along for this journey as we whittle away at the mysteries of unforgettable characters, and how you can create them for your own story.
It’ll be a fun ride!