Most writers come at character all wrong. They start by listing all the traits of the hero, tell a story about him and then somehow make him change at the end. That won’t work.
The steps we’re gonna work through are the following:
- We look not just at our MC but at all characters together, as part of an interconnected web. We’ll distinguish them by comparing each to the others according to story function and archetype.
- We’ll individualize each character based on character and opposition.
- We’ll concentrate on the hero, ‘building’ him step by step so that we end up with a multi layered, complex person that the audience cares about.
- We’ll create the opponent in detail, since this is the most important character after the hero and is the key to defining your hero.
- We’ll end with work on character techniques for building conflict over the course of the story.
Thinking of your characters as separate leaves your hero in a vacuum, unconnected to others; leaving the hero weak, his opponents — cardboard cutouts, and an even weaker support cast to round it all up.
Think of your characters as parts of a web in which each one helps define the others. A character is often defined by who he is not.
The most important step to creating your hero and each of the other characters is to connect and compare each to the others.
Each time you compare a character to your hero, you force yourself to distinguish the hero in new ways. You also start to see the secondary characters as complete human beings, as complex and valuable as your hero.
Characters connect and define each other in four major ways: by story function, archetype, theme, and opposition.
By Story Function
Every character must serve the function of the story, which is found in the story’s designing principle (in Chapter 2). Every character has a specially designed role to play to help the story fulfill that purpose.
All characters in a story represent either an opposition, an alliance with the hero, or some combination of the two; the twists and turns of the story are largely the product of the ebb and flow of opposition and friendship between various characters.
As for the opponent, his and the hero’s relationship is the single most important one in the story. The struggle between the two reveals and unfolds the larger issues and themes of the story.
The Ally is the hero’s helper, and serves as a sounding board, allowing the audience to hear the values and feelings of the lead.
Fake-ally opponent — character whose appearances deceive his true intent, which adds power to the opposition and twists the plot. Complex, fascinating characters, usually torn by a dilemma.
Fake-opponent ally — not as common as the previous ‘model’, since he’s not as useful to a writer (to which I heartily disagree). An ally, even one who first appears as an opponent, can’t give you the conflict and surprises of an opponent.
Subplot character — Most misunderstood character in fiction. The subplot is used to contrast how the hero and a second character deal with the same problem in slightly different ways. The subplot character highlights traits and dilemmas of the main character.
The subplot character is usually not the ally. He tracks a line parallel to the hero, with a different result.
Extraneous characters are a primary cause of episodic, inorganic stories. Ask if the character serves an important function in the overall story. If the answer is ‘no’, you should consider cutting him from the book entirely.
Character Web by Archetype
Archetypes are fundamental psychological patterns within a person; they are roles a person may play in society, essential ways of interacting with others.
An archetype gives your characters the appearance of weight, since each type expresses a fundamental pattern that the audience recognizes, and this same pattern is reflected both within the character and through interaction in the larger society.
An archetype resonates with an audience. But it is a blunt tool in your repertoire since, unless you give it detail, the archetype becomes a stereo type.
Always make the archetype specific, individual, to your unique character.
For fiction writers, the key concept of an archetype is the notion of a shadow. The shadow is the negative tendency of the archetype, a psychological trap that a person can fall into when playing that role.
What follows in “The Anatomy of Story,” is a look at major archetypes, their strengths and weaknesses. We’ve got the king (father), queen(mother), magician(shaman,) trickster, artist, clown, warrior, and so on.
Individualizing characters in the web
You compare your characters, this time through theme and opposition. We’ll look at theme in detail in the next chapter, Moral Argument. We do need to look at a few of the key concepts of themes now. Theme is your view of the proper way to act in the world, expressed through the actions your characters take in the plot. Theme isn’t subject matter, it’s your view of how to live well or badly, and it’s unique for each story you write.
You begin individualizing your characters by finding the moral problem at the heart of the premise. You then play out the various probabilities of the moral problem in the body of the story through the opposition.
You create group of opponents who force the hero to deal with the central problem.
- Begin by writing down what you think is the central moral problem of your story.
- Compare your hero and all other characters on the following : weaknesses; needs – physical and moral; desires; values; powers, status and ability; how each character faces the central moral problem in the story.
- Start with the relationship between hero and opponent. The opponent holds the key to creating a great character web.
- Compare the hero to the other opponents, then — to the allies. Finally, compare opponents and allies to one another.
We’ll stop here for now; but don’t worry, there’s plenty more to talk about on the topic of Characters. As before, all this comes from The Anatomy of Story, a very good book on writing, which I’m slowly making my way through.