Pop quiz hotshot. There’s a bomb on a bus. Once the bus goes 50 miles an hour the bomb is armed. You’re sitting on the bus on your way to pitch your script to Todd McFarlene.
Damn it, you’re not done.
It still needs polishing.
But there’s not enough time.
The bus just hit 55.
You can only tackle two things in the script before you go boom. Plot. Pacing. Characters. Dialogue.
What do you do?
What do you do?
If I was on that bus, I’d pick theme and characters. It’s a sucky choice, because good stories are complex machines and all the gears need oil to work right.
But at the end of the day if we don’t have a story “about something”, if we don’t have characters that resonate, the story is DOA.
I talk about theme elsewhere “And one theme to rule them all”–so, exactly how can we create characters that resonate—characters that engage the reader and become engrained in their psyche?
Today’s answer comes in three parts.
Complexity. Character arcs. Passion.
Human beings are complex animals.
We have wants, desires, needs, goals, regrets, flaws, likes, hates, fears, impulses, instincts, talents, handicaps, prejudices…
and life experience… lots of history.
Though some writers may not take the time to write these details,
though some characters may not get the page time to reveal them to the reader, the complexity should always be there.
No character in fiction comes from the void without this complexity (unless of course, that’s part of the character).
Complexity, breeds character.
It bleeds through in-between the lines and jumps out to give the writer creative direction.
Second, character arcs.
Change is the medium of story.
It’s the tangible part of the equation the reader latches on to.
If we don’t see a character change, relative to the story’s theme, the story is flat… insignificant. We saw a sequence of events that started and ended with the character in the same emotional/psychological/spiritual place.
Every main character (excluding villains–usually) begins with a series of flaws that need to be overcome by the end of the story. The character’s struggle to overcome these emotional/psychological/spiritual flaws, reveals a journey that engages the reader and (to some extent) allows them to relate to—both consciously and subconsciously.
When the character’s change reflects the master theme of the story, the arc supports and solidifies the theme throughout the entire narrative. This creates a deeper connection between the reader—character—and theme of the story.
The character arc becomes a transformation of relation.
It’s not just about the character, it’s a transformation of relation between the character and story AND the character and reader.
Done well, (at both the conscious and subconscious level) the reader transposes his/herself to the character and the character’s plight.
The character arc creates an empathetic bond.
Of course, the character arc is exactly as it states, an arc—sweeping along from point a, to point b. I’m focusing on the setup of character arc here, the flaw, because writers often fall flat when establishing it. If your flaw is weak to begin with, then the transformative endpoint will be just as weak.
One of the things a lot of “how to write” books often talk about are establishing “primal” flaws (and themes–but that’s another article). Quickly, lets look at primal versus non-primal flaws.
Joe is an accountant. He is a bit obsessive compulsive and has to plan for everything. He’s an absolute schedule fanatic. If his schedule doesn’t permit, he simply won’t do it. He’ll skip his mother’s funeral if there’s a schedule conflict.
Jane is an accountant. She is young, inexperienced and works at an all male firm. Jane is constantly worried she’s going to make a mistake. She double checks her work, taking twice as long to complete projects as her peers. Jane’s over her head in bills and contemplates being fired every morning as she heads into the office.
In the first scenario, I’m trying to present a character flaw that is limited in audience. While we all might know someone who’s a bit of a stickler for being on time, few people in the real world would share such an extreme character trait (flaw). Our empathetic bond is weak.
Encountering Joe in a story, you’d most likely be forced to dig deeper, looking for a more meaningful connection to his character. If the rest of Joe and the story isn’t developed and written well enough, there’s a good chance no such deeper connection will be found, or the reader would simply give up before really trying.
Where as, Jane’s fundamental flaw is fear and feelings of inadequacy. Something that everyone can relate to in one way or another… something more “primal” to the human condition. Our empathetic bond is strong with Jane.
The possibilities for character arcs are pretty much endless, but you’ll attract a much wider audience by narrowing your arcs to more primal issues everyone deals with or has experienced at some point in their lives.
The subject of the character’s passion is irrelevant.
You don’t have to worry about creating a character that is likeable or “focus on making them relatable”. Right now, you just need to endow them with intense passion.
A person can be passionate about anything, even things frowned upon by society. A bank robber who lusts after money, a samurai warrior who holds honor as the highest regard, a young nerd who dreams of finding true love, a serial killer who wants his name to live forever.
Tell me which movie below you’d want to see more (I’m taking some liberties here);
Luke Skywalker lives on Tatooine working on his uncle’s farm. He doesn’t have many friends, but gets to fly around on his hovercraft and hang out with a couple of droids. Sometimes farming is boring, but whatever, he’s young and has his whole life ahead of him. If he gets a chance to go off planet and check out the rest of the galaxy, he’ll probably take it. Tatooine has nice sunsets.
Luke Skywalker lives on Tatooine working his uncle’s farm. He feels out of place and resents the simple life style. Luke dreams of doing great things, he’s always wanted to actually make a difference in the universe. Everyday after work he stares out across the dunes and yearns for something bigger. He’s drawn up blueprints to build his own spaceship and he’s already got a hut full of parts… someday, somehow he’ll make it happen.
Hopefully you’ve seen it, Luke lacks any kind of passion whatsoever in version one. Where as, in version two, he’s jam packed with barely containable emotion to leave Tatooine and be a part of something bigger than himself. I’m betting the second Luke resonated more with you.
Whatever it is, amp up your character’s passion to level eleven.
I know some of you smarty pants writers out there are saying “wait a second, what a bout a hard-boiled detective story, the burnt out cop story, the cynic and the like.” The best of these characters are never without passion, their passion is just redirected or internalized into something less obvious.
Often these characters are passionate about survival, or not getting pushed beyond their breaking point, or a specific person in their lives. Of course, in some cases, the apparent loss of a character’s passion, may actually be part of their character flaw and character arc. Sneaky writer bastards.
When developing your characters, think not only of how their passion is affecting them now, but how it’s surfaced throughout their lives. How it’s driven them and molded their actions and personality.
Focus on complex characters, oozing passion who are moving through a complete transformative arc. Get these three down and you’ll have characters that people actually care about and the bones to a story worth telling. ▪
About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S. Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.
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