25 Things You Should Know About Character
Previous iterations of the “25 Things” series:
Here you’ll find the many things I believe — at this moment! — about characters:
1. The Character As Fulcrum: All Things Rest Upon Him
Without character, you have nothing. Great plot? Robust storyworld? Potent themes? Elegant font? Matters little if your character is a dud. The punch might be delicious, but not if someone threw up in it. The character is why we come to the table. The character is our way through all those other things. We engage with stories because we relate to them: they are mirrors. Characters are the mirror-side version of “us” staring back. Twisted, warped, uncertain — but still us through and through.
2. The Cure For All That Which Ails The Audience
A great character can be the line between narrative life and story death. She’s a powerful Band-Aid, a strong swaddling of gauze to staunch the bleeding. Think of the character like duct tape: she can piece the whole thing back together. I will forgive your sins of a so-so plot, of muddy themes, of a meh-ehhh-enh storyworld if you’re letting me live for a while with a great character. But don’t think character will close truly grievous injuries. A sucking chest wound — meaning, poor writing, asinine plot or perhaps a duller-than-two-dead-goats storyworld — will only swallow your great character into its gory depths.
3. And Yet The Character Must Be Connected
Don’t believe that all those other aspects are separate from the character. The character is — or should be — bound inextricably to those other elements. The character is your vehicle through the plot. The character carries the story. Theme, mood, description: focus them through the prism of character, not vice versa. The character is the DNA in every goddamn cell of your story.
4. You Are The Dealer; The Character Is The Drug
The audience will do anything to spend time with a great character. We’re junkies for it. We’ll gnaw our own arms off to hang out once more with a killer character. It’s why sequels and series are so popular: because we want to see where the character’s going. You give us a great character, our only desire becomes to lick him like he’s a hallucinogenic toad and take the crazy trip-ass ride wherever he has to go.
5. Tell Us What She Wants
It is critical to know what a character wants from the start. She may not know what she wants, but the audience must have that information. Maybe she wants: her enemies destroyed, freedom from oppression, her child returned to her, true love, the perfect falafel, a pet monkey, the ultimate wedding, a secret subterranean base on the motherfucking moon. She can want a number of things, and it’s of the uttermost importance that we know what it is. How else will we know how far she’s come? How else can we see the stakes that are on the table? How else will you frustrate the piss out of the audience by standing in her way?
6. Not About Likability But Rather, Livability
It doesn’t matter if we “like” your character, or in the parlance of junior high whether we even “like-like” your character. It only matters that we want to live with him. We must see something that makes us want to keep on keeping on, following the character into the jaws of Hell and out through the Devil’s lava-encrusted keister. For the record, the “Lava Keister” sounds like either a roller coaster or a Starbucks drink.
7. The Give-A-Fuck Factor
It is critical to smack the audience in the crotchal region with an undeniable reason to give a fuck. Ask this up front as you’re crafting the story: why will the audience care about this character? You have unlimited answers to this. Look to the narratives all around us to find reasons to care. Anything can fly. We love underdog stories. We love tales of redemption (and takes of failed redemption). We love bad boys, good girls, bad girls, good boys, we want to see characters punished, exalted, triumphant, rewarded, destroyed, stymied, puzzled, wounded. We gawk at car crashes. We swoon at love.
8. Rub Up Against Remarkability
You must prove this thesis: “This character is worth the audience’s time.” The character must deserve her own story — or, at least, her own part within it. You prove this thesis by making the character in some way remarkable. This is why you see a lot of stories about doctors, detectives, lawyers, cowboys, bounty hunters, wizards, space rangers, superheroes… but you don’t see quite so many about copier repairmen, pharmaceutical assistants, piano tuners, or ophthalmologists. The former group is remarkable in part by their roles. The latter group can be just as remarkable, however, provided you discover their noteworthiness and put it on the page or the screen. What makes one remarkable can be a secret past, a current attitude, a future triumph. It can be internal or external. Infinite options. Choose one.
9. Act Upon The World Rather Than Have The World Act Upon Him
Don’t let the character be a dingleberry stuck to the ass of a toad as he floats downriver on a bumpy log. We grow weary of characters who do nothing except react to whatever the world flings at their heads. That’s not to say that characters shouldn’t be forced to deal with unexpected challenges and left-field conflicts — but that doesn’t prevent a character from being proactive, either. Passivity fails to be interesting for long. This is why crime fiction has power: the very nature of a crime is about doing. You don’t passively rob a bank, kill your lover, or run a street gang. Simply put: characters do shit.
10. Bad Decisions Are A Good Decision
Nobody ever said an active character had to be a smart character. A character can and perhaps should be badly proactive, making all the wrong moves and affecting the world with his piss-poor decisions. At some point a character needs to take control, even if it means taking control in the worst possible way. In fact…
11. This Is Why Jesus Invented Suspense
Tension is created when characters you love make bad decisions. They lie, cheat, steal. They break laws or shatter taboos. They go into the haunted house. They don’t run from the serial killer. They betray a friend. Sleep with an enemy. Eat a forbidden fruit. Jack off in a mad scientist’s gizmotron thus accidentally creating an army of evil baby Hitlers. Tension is when the character sets free his chickens and we know full well that those chickens will come to roost. But the chickens will come home changed. They will have knives. Prison tats. And evil wizard powers. Don’t let tension wriggle free, soft and pliable, from external events. Let the character create the circumstances of suspense.
12. How You Succeed Is By Not Having Them Succeed
You as storyteller are a malevolent presence blocking the character’s bliss. You must be a total asshole. Imagine that the character is an ant over here, and over there is a nugget of food, a dollop of honey, and all the ant wants is to trot his little ant-y ass over to the food so that he may dine upon it. Think of the infinite ways you can stop him from getting to that food. Flick him into the grass. Block his path with twigs, rocks, a line of dishsoap, a squeeze of lighter fluid set aflame. Be the wolf to his little piggy and huff and puff and blow his house down. Pick him up, put him in the cup-holder in your car, and drive him 100 miles in the opposite direction while taunting him with insults. The audience will hate you. But they’ll keep on hungering for more. Will the ant get to the food? Won’t he? Will he find his friends again? Can he overcome? Primal, simple, declarative problem. You are the villain. The character is the hero. The audience thirsts for this most fundamental conflict of storyteller versus character.
13. The Code
Just as a storyworld is beholden to certain laws, norms, and ways, so too is a character: every character has an internal compass, an invisible set of morals and beliefs that comprise their “code.” The audience senses this. They know when a character betrays his own code and violates the program — it’s like a glitch in the Matrix, a disturbance in the dream you’ve crafted. That’s not to say characters can’t change. They can, and do. But a heroic fireman doesn’t one day save a cat from a tree and the next day decide to cook and eat a baby. Changes in a character must come out of the story, not out of thin air.
14. A B C
The law of threes. Find three beats for your character — be they physical, social, emotional — with each beat graphing a change of the character of the course of a story. Selfish boy to exiled teen to heroic man. From maiden to mother to crone. Private, Lieutenant, General. Knows everything, everything in question, knows nothing. Birth, life, death. Beginning, middle, end.
15. Boom Goes The Dynamite
Blake Snyder calls this the “Save The Cat” moment, but it needn’t be that shiny and happy. Point being: every character needs a kick-ass moment, a reason why we all think, “Fuck yeah, that’s why I’m behind this dude.” What moment will you give your character? Why will we pump our fists and hoot for him?
16. Beware The Everyman, Fear The Chosen One
I’m boring. So are you. We don’t all make compelling protagonists despite what we feel in our own heads, and so the Everyman threatens to instead become the eye-wateringly-dull-motherfucker-man, flat as a coat of cheap paint. The Chosen One — arguably the opposite of the Everyman — has, appropriately, the opposite problem: he’s too interesting, a preening peacock of special preciousness. Beware either. Both can work, but know the danger. Find complexity. Seek remarkability.
17. Nobody Sees Themselves As A Supporting Character
Thus, your supporting characters shouldn’t act like supporting characters. They have full lives in which they are totally invested and where they are the protagonists. They’re not puppets for fiction.
18. The Main MC, DJ Protag
That said, they don’t call your “main character” the MC for nothing. Your protagonist at the center of the story should still be the most compelling motherfucker in the room.
19. You Are Not Your Character, Except For When You Are
Your character is not a proxy for you. If you see Mary Sue in the mirror, put your foot through the glass and use that reflection instead. But that old chestnut — “write what you know” — applies. You take the things that have happened to you and you bring them to the character. Look for those things in your memory that affected you: fought a bear, won a surfing competition, lost a fist-fight with Dad, eradicated an insectile alien species. Pull out the feelings. Inject them into the face, neck, guts, brain and heart of the character.
20. Fugged Up
Everybody’s a little fucked up inside. Some folks more than that. No character is a saint. Find the darkness inside. Draw their imperfections to the surface like a bead of blood. You don’t have to give a rat’s ass about Joseph Campbell, but he was right when he said we love people for their imperfections. Same holds true for characters. We love them for their problems.
21. A Tornado Beneath A Cool Breeze
A good character is both simple and complex: simplicity on the surface eradicates any barrier to entry, and complexity beneath rewards the reader and gives the character both depth and something to do. Complexity on the surface rings hollow and threatens to be confusing: ease the audience into the character the way you’d get into a clawfoot tub full of steaming hot water — one toe at a time, baby.
22. On The Subject Of Archetypes
You can begin with an archetype — or even a stereotype — because people find comfort there. It creates a sense of intimacy even when none exists. But the archetype should be like the leg braces worn by Forrest Gump as a kid — when that kid takes off running, he blasts through the braces and leaves them behind. So too with the “type.” They’ll help the character stand on his own until it’s time to shatter ’em when running. Oh, and for the record, Forrest Gump was a fucking awful movie. In short: worst character ever.
23. Dialogue Over Description, Action Over Rumination
Don’t bludgeon us over the head with description. A line or three about the character is good enough — and it doesn’t need to be purely about their physical looks. It can be about movement and body language. It can be about what people think, about what goes on in her head. But throw out a couple-few lines and get out. Dialogue is where a character is revealed. And action. What a character says and does is the sum of her being. It doesn’t need to be more than that: a character says shit, then does shit, then says shit about the shit she just did. In there lurks infinite possibilities — a confluence of atoms that reveals who she is.
24. Take The Test Drive
Write the character before you write the character. Take her on adventures that don’t count. Canon can go suck itself. Fuck canon. Who cares about canon? Here I say, “to Hell with the audience.” This isn’t for them. This is for you. Joyride the character around some flash fiction, a short script, a blog post, a page of dialogue, a poem, whatever. Test her, try her out. That sounds porny, but what I mean to say is: cut off her skin, wear it, and dance around the goddamn room. Which leads me to…
25. Get All Up In Them Guts
Know your character. Every square inch. Empathize, don’t sympathize. Understand the character but don’t stand with the character. Get in their skin. The closer you get, the better off you are when a story goes sideways. Any rewriting or additional work comes easy when you know which way the character’s gonna jump. Know them like you know yourself; when the character does something under your watch, you know it comes justified, with purpose, with meaning, with intimate knowledge that the thing she did is the thing she was always supposed to motherfucking do. Unrelated: I really like the word “motherfucker.”
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