Characters and Development
LET'S TALK PEOPLE
That's the name of the game.
No matter how clever, exciting, funny or dramatic your plot may be, the characters that people it are not only indispensable elements of your story, but they are also the most important element in any story.
They are crucial to the theme and the plot.
People care about people, not just about things or happenings. The more interesting and fascinating the characters you draw, the better your story will become and the more the reader or viewer will care about what happens to them.
A good writer will let his characters tell him where they will go, how they will behave, and what they will do to accomplish their aims and goals.
A character with a college education will think and behave differently than a high school dropout. Someone who has always known wealth will think and behave differently than someone who has always been poor. A character who has grown up in a happy household will think and behave differently than someone who was abused as a child.
The protagonist in a story should always be someone the reader or viewer likes and cares about. This is not to say that your protagonist must start off as a goody two-shoes. But the spark must be there to make the reader/viewer want to see change occur in that character along the way.
No matter how harsh or seemingly uncaring your protagonist may appear at the beginning, there must be some redeeming feature that you will ignite at some point. Usually that point is the protagonist's "moment of truth," when he or she decides what the right thing to do is and then does it.
In many stories, there is a second protagonist, usually the first protagonist's love interest or a character with another relationship to the primary protagonist.
This character, like other major characters, should be fully drawn for change and growth to take place. At some point in the story, something important happens to further the relationship with the protagonist or conclude, it for better or for worse.
The protagonist in your story is, naturally, the hero of your piece.
That does not mean he or she is Superman or Superwoman. The protagonist(s) should have weaknesses and most important, an Achilles' heel. The protagonist must be vulnerable. He or she must be able to lose, be hurt, or even die, depending on the story.
GETTING THE PROTAGONIST UP AND DOWN THE TREE
The three basic elements of storytelling are to get your protagonist up a tree, throw rocks at him or her, and then get your protagonist safely down the tree.
In other words, get your protagonist into some kind of problem either directly or indirectly (see pages 59-61 on deliberate and nondeliberate involvement), putting him or her in conflict with an antagonist. Place obstacles in the way of the protagonist as he or she attempts to resolve the problem, and then get your protagonist to resolve the problem, achieving his or her original goal.
Protagonists must have a purpose or goal to attain, whether they set out to accomplish it or it is thrust upon them.
Examples of purposes might be to live, to love, to be happy, to prosper, to recover, to discover, to reach a goal, for the protagonist or another.
In developing your protagonist, bear in mind your protagonist's purpose. Who that protagonist will be dictates how that protagonist will accept the challenge, deal with obstacles, and how he or she will manage to overcome those obstacles to reach a satisfactory conclusion. For example, a character with a college education or someone with some specific skill or knowledge would function differently than a character not possessing that education, skill, or knowledge.
Suppose the protagonist is someone who loved the great outdoors and had camped, hunted, hiked, etc. Wouldn't that individual have a better chance of surviving in the wilderness than a character born and bred in the city, and whose closest encounter with a tree was in a local park?
Now reverse the situation.
Wouldn't an urban, street-wise individual survive the city jungle better than a character who was pretty much a country bumpkin?
WHO'S THROWING THE ROCKS?
Now let's talk about the antagonist in your story.
In order to create conflict (which every story must have), there must be someone or something working against your protagonist, and that antagonist should always be a worthy adversary.
The competition and conflict should not be easy to overcome for the protagonist.
Another thing... although we often refer to our protagonist as the one in the "white hat," and the antagonist as the one in the "black hat," the more human the antagonist is, the more real that antagonist becomes.
But . . .
NOT ALL PROTAGONISTS AND ANTAGONISTS ARE HUMAN!
Although most writers think of protagonists and antagonists as humans, protagonists in recent stories included Flipper, Lassie, Gentle Ben, Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion, Judy the Chimp, Rin Tin Tin, and most recently, The Lion King.
Although many times the elements are considered obstacles in the path of the protagonist, there are stories where such obstacles are the antagonists.
Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea is an example. The old fisherman's duel was with the sea and not with a human being.
In Hitchcock's The Birds, the antagonist was the birds, as was the shark in Jaws and the bees In The Swarm.
Still another consideration is the will to overcome a handicap which again is not the typical human antagonist. Although a handicap could be considered an obstacle, it might be the antagonist of the piece. Some of the following nonhumans or elements might be considered as protagonists or antagonists:
A domestic pet
Aliens from outer space
An intellectual handicap
Fears and phobias
Race or ethnicity
Spirit from another world
Wild but caring animal
That depends on you.
Sometimes the writer comes up with a great, fully-developed character and then goes searching for a situation or a plot in which to place that character.
Then again, and more often than not, the writer comes up with a situation and then seeks to "people" it. The type of character you choose to put into that situation will determine how the plot must be structured and how that character will handle the situation.
For example, if your protagonist is a police officer assigned to a murder case, that character will face the problem as a police officer, though he or she may take certain liberties that real-life police officers would not take.
However, if the protagonist you choose to involve in the murder case happens to be a used-car salesman with no investigative experience, naturally the approach that character will take will be worlds apart from the way the law enforcement protagonist would take.
The choice is yours as to what you start with, the plot or the character.
Whichever the case, the character you eventually choose must be fully developed. The following list can aid you in developing the characters in your story.
|Where was the character born and raised?
Who were the parents?
What was the character's childhood like?
What members of a family does the character have?
What education did the character have?
What kind of student was the character?
What special skills or knowledge does the character possess?
What hobbies did or does the character have?
What are the bad habits of the character?
What are some of the traits of the character-emotional, mental, and physical?
With what kind of job or profession is the character occupied, past and present?
And finally, what are some of the character's past and present relationships?
If you use the next lists, your characters can easily become people that you and the reader or viewer can come to know and understand.
Armed with the knowledge of who a character is, let the character help you decide the course he or she will take in your story and what changes in that character will be brought about as the plot develops.
For example, let us say our protagonist is a young man by the name of Joe Smith.
Who is Joe Smith?
Select one or more items from the list titled PLACE OF ORIGIN. For example, Joe was born in a factory town in the northern U.S. From PARENTS, select one or more items. For example, his parents were poor, working, religious, strict, but loving parents.
From CHILDHOOD, select one or more items. Joe was an only child but came from a close, very happy family.
From FAMILY MEMBERS, select one or more items. Joe's family consisted of his mother, father, paternal grandfather, and his uncle.
From EDUCATION, select one or more items. Joe attended public elementary school, public high school, a state college. He also served in the army and received MILITARY TRAINING.
From EDUCATION BEHAVIOR, select one or more items. Joe was a classroom cut-up but also a good student.
From SPECIAL SKILLS select one or more items. Over the years, Joe has taken up sky diving, become a sports enthusiast, become a good hunter, learned how to fly in the service, has handled weapons (service), become expert in survival (service), is mechanically inclined, is a good pool player. . .
From HOBBIES, select one or more items. Joe began collecting baseball cards when he was a kid and still collects them. He's into camping, fishing, sports, and weekly card playing with some close friends.
From BAD HABITS, select one or more items. Joe doesn't have many bad habits, but he is impatient or short tempered, and he is not the neatest person in his housekeeping.
From GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS, select one 'or more items. Joe is honest, a romanticist, humorous, a sometimes drinker, happy-go-lucky, nonsmoker, at times impractical, a sensitive man, often curious, and usually optimistic. He's a loyal friend, is danger-loving, can be charming his own way, is not a quitter.
From MENTAL AND PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS, select one or more items. He is mature, tall and gangly, wears contact lenses in preference eyeglasses, has prematurely graying hair, suffers from a fear of heights, is his own man, strong-willed and downright stubborn at times.
From PROFESSIONS and JOBS, select one or more items. He worked way through school as a short-order cook and as a part-time security guard. He played pro football but was injured early in his career. He then worked as a salesman but decided to get into law enforcement.
From RELATIONSHIPS and MARITAL STATUS, select one or more items. Joe is divorced after one marriage. He has one small child he sees often as .he can. He has a number of friends through professional and social contacts. He has no steady girlfriend at present.
From CURRENT LIFESTYLE, select one or more items. Joe is a bachelor and enjoys doing his own thing, shies away from commitment to another marriage, dates attractive single women, lives a fairly low-key lifestyle.
From HOME, or DWELLING and VEHICLES, select one or more items. Joe lives in a small, inexpensive, one bedroom rented apartment in a middle class section of the city. He drives an expensive sports car, the one luxury he affords himself.
We have now developed the skeletal outline of Joe Smith and put some meat on the bones.
The creativity of the writer should now come into play to further embellish the character of Joe Smith by additional suggestions from the lists or any other ideas the writer can come up with.
A quick suggestion: to get a good physical description of a character, you might refer to photographs of friends or from magazines. CHARACTER BACKGROUND
Place of Origin
On the road (migrant)
River or lake front
|Raised by relative
Two sets of parents
Paternal son, daughter
Educated at home
Parochial or religious school
|Public high school
School for the handicapped
Roth, Martin. The Writer's Partner: 1001 Breakthrough Ideas to Stimulate Your Imagination. Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions, 2001.