Crafting Effective Characters Part Two
Master authors through the centuries have already devised guidelines for thousands of successful characters, firmly grounded in a range of types which have been proven again and again. If you examine any number of works of literature with this in mind, you’ll find it immediately to be true: in all the numerous characters which stories through the ages have created, there are certain specific and detailed guidelines which it seems that the most successful authors have followed, almost without exception.
These have been compiled and outlined on the Character Development Chart. This can therefore be enormously helpful, enabling you to give needed depth and realism to a fictional creation.
You’ve probably encountered advice in other writing guides which suggest that you should ask some basic questions in order to ‘develop’ a character, including things like:
• What is the usual general behaviour and physical make-up of your character?
• What is your character's likely medical condition?
• What emotion does your character normally exhibit?
• What are the sexual attitudes and attitudes to children of your character?
• To what extent does your character demonstrate command over his or her environment?
• How valuable is your character to the society in which he or she operates, as opposed to how valuable does he or she seem?
• How honest or virtuous or ethical is your character?
• How does he or she deal with truth?
• How would you describe his or her courage level?
and many others.
To ensure that there is no misunderstanding here, to develop a living breathing entity who virtually leaps off the page, these questions do not need to be asked, like other writing guides recommend: you don’t have to go away and construct answers to the above questions.
Master authors use a set of already-established “creatures” — seven in number — and merely adapt them to their own ends, and if this seems like a wild statement, all you need to do is read on.
In any narrative, a plainly heroic figure would tend to wear thin after a while, which is why characters of this kind are usually given an explicit “flaw” to make them interesting, whether it’s a psychological weakness or an actual physical gap in their armour like Batman’s obsession with his parents’ murder or Superman’s kryptonite, Aragorn’s self-doubt or the Scarlet Pimpernel’s dilemma over the love he has for his wife versus his altruism and courage. It’s one reason why so many main characters are orphans: the loss of parental “back-up” is a major departure from the ideal.
You might think ”Naturally” a little too easily —why is this a natural response? Because readers are attracted to vacuums — gaps, holes, missing qualities, departures from perfection — and a too plainly virtuous or invulnerable hero will cease to draw in attention. A lead character with no vacuums, who approaches perfection in any given situation, becomes after a while a sort of cipher — predictable and almost “non-fictional” in the sense that the appearance of such a character in any scene yields a mathematical equation: “enter character, end of uncertainty, end of tension, end of story”.
C. S. Lewis’s Aslan, for example, is a Christ-metaphor — the Lion is effectively the “God” of the Narnian universe. Whenever the Lion appears in The Chronicles of Narnia, all story elements go into orbit around him: effectively, the narrative comes to an end and things are resolved to one degree or another. Thus Lewis uses him sparingly.
Tolkien keeps any God-personifications out of Middle-earth, to use another example — the closest he comes is Gandalf, who is given the form of a physically weak and wizened old man to make sure that his presence on stage does not cause to many ripples in the created world around him. When Gandalf is rejuvenated and returned from death, his appearances are relatively scant for exactly the same reasons as with Aslan above.
But this same principle operates all the way down to lesser characters. Any created entity who appears to be too perfect also becomes uninteresting and bounces our attention; it is the imperfect characters, and the imperfections within the more ideal characters, who hold our attention and evoke emotion.
Scan through a few successful stories for yourself and you will immediately see that this is true.
Now take a look at your own characters: who amongst them is “too perfect”?
You can read more about all this in my book How Stories Really Work.