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What the Thing Called a ‘Character’ Actually Is, and How to Rapidly Build a Convincing One

Putting aside for the moment the world of films and television, in which characters appear to us ‘ready made’ in the form of actors, have you ever noticed how, in most fiction, these people are rarely described in any detail by the author?

Take a look at some of the leading characters in fiction: Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice, Pip in Great Expectations, Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, and many more, get nothing more than a mention of how they look. Even the cartoon character Tin Tin, says author Philip Pullman, appears physically shallow: ’ I like Tintin's blandness, his blankness, his lack of depth; he is an empty page on which adventures can be drawn.’

Surprisingly few works of fiction contain anything but the most superficial descriptions of the way their main characters appear physically; normally, appearance is referred to in passing, and with only one or two details. This lack of description is in itself interesting: the gap or void it opens up invites reader contribution.

So what is it about most of them that gets us caring about what they do or what happens to them?

Is it sense of humour or ‘personality’? Again, without looking, you might be tempted to say yes. But again, a remarkable number of central characters in fiction are largely humourless. This particularly applies to protagonists, who are quite a serious lot in the main. When we look for humour or a cheerful disposition, we most often find it among companions of the lead character. To some degree, protagonists especially are ‘blank slates’ in the personality department, like Tin Tin: they are empty pages on which the reader’s face can be drawn.

In visual media like film and television, the performances which gain the most praise are often those in which the actors have opened themselves up to audience participation.

What lies at the heart of a character’s appeal to readers or viewers? Let us not doubt that that appeal exists: almost every film you have ever watched, every piece of fiction you have ever read, every story you have ever heard, has had at its heart at least one character you have found attractive to one degree or another. Some characters possess a life apparently far beyond the written page or the silver screen: Darcy from Pride and Prejudice, George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life, Winnie-the-Pooh and millions more are all loved.

The answer to this isn't that they are all possessed of some mysterious ‘x-factor’ which only great authors can conjure and which is beyond our understanding. At the heart of their appeal is their vulnerability. They lack something. And they lack it while making their way through story environments in which they desperately need the very thing that they lack.

Darcy lacks subtle social skills, the ability to interact superficially enough to thrive in the polite circles in which he moves. This lack warms us toward him as well as revealing him to be a person of greater depth than some of the shallow figures around him.

George Bailey lacks the ‘killer instinct’, the ability to make hard and selfish decisions which will guarantee his own survival in a town which is increasingly driven by heartless commercial forces. We feel compassion for him as he is cornered by these pressures and has to make an impossible choice.

You will find this in any character in fiction to one degree or another: all are vulnerable, weakened either by a specific or a general inadequacy of some kind. Most protagonists, for example, lack parents. That void or gap or hole or emptiness is what draws us in. The secret of the charm of any fictitious character is this deficiency, this lack of wholeness, which we rush to fill and which grips us as the plot moves forward.

This is no accident, though authors may not have consciously crafted them this way. The process by which a character is forged is a mysterious one, but the odd thing is that, however it is done, the final result is an almost universal template: a vulnerable figure whose life consists largely of gaps. And the gaps grow as the story progresses: Elizabeth Bennet’s minor embarrassment about her foolish mother grows into a passionate awkwardness concerning Mr. Collins’ proposal of marriage, and then evolves into a mortification about the arrogant Mr. Darcy. Even that is then swamped by the final fear of family ruin brought on by her sister’s elopement.

As I have described elsewhere, Luke Skywalker’s disappointment at not being allowed to go to town becomes a real frustration with being trapped at home, then rapidly escalates into a concrete loss of foster parents and then a life and death struggle.

What is all this really about? How does the growth of a lead character’s vulnerability relate to the story’s plot? All of this and much more is explained on my book, How Stories Really Work. In effect, a lead character’s vulnerability is one of the first ‘hooks’ by which master authors capture our attention.

How do they hold that attention and move us forward? Stay tuned.

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