The Secret Behind Making Me Care About Your Characters

(ha ha ahem, let’s try a less controversial blog post today, shall we?)

I maybe hate your character.

And it’s not the character’s fault.

IT’S YOUR FAULT, YOU MONSTER.

When I talk to you about your character, and you start to tell me, “Well, she has to find the DONGLE OF MAGIC to fight the WIZARD OF BADNESS and then she tames HORBERT THE MANY-HEADED DRAGON,” I immediately start to cross my eyes. I emit drool. I have a small seizure and then fall into a torpid grief-coma. Grief over what you’ve done to the human condition.

And what you’ve done to the human condition is ignore it utterly.

You callow, callous motherfucker.

First, we need to understand a thing that I have said many times but bears careful reiteration: plot is not a thing held in your left hand, and character is not a thing held far away in your right. Instead, take both of these hands and smash them together. Plot and character should not be isolated aspects of storytelling but rather, smooshed together like two delicious pies that are turned into one super-excellent hyper-delicious pie. The VOLTRON of PIES.

(The Voltron of Pies is my favorite Tarot card amongst the Major Arcana, by the way.)

What I mean by this is very simple:

People see plot as this external thing. An exoskeleton instead of a skeleton hidden beneath layers of scrumptious human meat. And particularly in genre fiction, you have this feeling sometimes that the “quest mechanic” drives the sequence of events. A thing happens and needs another thing to get fixed and so generic hero-bro or sassy space-pilot-lady go and do more things to fight the bad guy and get the thing to fix the thing and save the day and ugh barf-heave.

Stop. Stop that right now.

The impetus for character action is not plot-driven.

The impetus for character action is character-driven.

Your story is not a video game. In a video game, the protagonist is in effect the player. The player has agency by dint of holding the controller. But in a story, the character must have agency. (Quick reminder on what character agency is, if you feel devoid of my definition.) A character doesn’t care about the WIDGET OF MAJESTY or the GIZMO OF FLARNIDONG unless those things suit something altogether more personal. Meaning: the character cares most about things personally relevant to the character. Not global, galactic, kingdom-wide concerns. But concerns about that person’s intimate sphere of influence.

Characters care about family, friends, jobs, love, hate. If they care about money or power, it’s because they see it as something they need personally. If they have larger, grander principles, those principles must be rooted in something intimate to the character.

Look at it this way: we don’t care about Buffy Summers because she fights vampires. The teen girl versus vampires thing might get us to the table, but the part that’s going to make us stay — the part where we are going to care — is when we recognize her struggle. Nobody recognizes fighting vampires because none of us has actually fought vampires (though man, I am tired as hell of punching all these werewolves). But Buffy is a teen girl who just wants to be a teen girl. That? We get. Buffy is in a relationship with a man who is sometimes amazing and sometimes a monster and a lot of us understand that, too. Buffy cares about her friends, her mom, her normal life, and yet she’s thrust into situations she cannot control. Like we all are!

John McClane’s struggle isn’t that he’s fighting terrorists. It’s that he’s trying to repair a marriage on the verge of shattering irrevocably. (And at Christmas, no less!) His struggle — to fight through Nakitomi Plaza and survive and save people — is because his wife is in there. And it’s not just, aww, he loves her. It’s that their relationship is strained. That’s a very human thing.

Walter White’s sin is pride, but it’s all too easy to see him as a power-hungry pride sponge when really what’s happening is here’s a guy who was burned years ago by his business partners. Who has been living in a fog of half-failure — who is driven by the revenge born of regret — for most of his adult life. It’s not just the METH KING OF THE SOUTHWEST stuff. It’s all the stuff about his family, his job, his inability to overcome past failures and betrayals.

We don’t sympathize with Luke’s galactic ambitions. We sympathize with him wanting to get off that dirtfuck hillbilly planet. We totally grok him wanting to be something greater than he seems to be — the desire to stop being some blue-milk-slurpin’ sandfarmer and become the last of the Jedi, well, shit, who doesn’t want to accelerate past our seemingly mundane destinies?

And it’s from this — from the part where the characters cleave to their personal goals, ideas and problems that we see them start to make changes. They do things in support of wanting things or trying to overcome problems or cleaving to their personal principles and hopes and dreams and fears. And when that happens, when they act, they create plot.

As I am also wont to say:

Plot is Soylent Green. It is made of people.

And it’s not just one person. It’s multiple characters operating in a shared world. Some want the same thing and work together to achieve it — working parallel. Some want the same things and work in opposition — working perpendicular. Some want wildly different things but see shared paths (parallel), and some want different things and will fight each other to the motherfucking death to get it (parallel). Protagonist. Antagonist. Main character. Supporting characters. All of these individuals believe that their personal crusade or vendetta is the most vital. And they push and they pull on each other. Sometimes characters who are parallel will turn perpendicular (think of Sam and Frodo or Willow and Buffy). Sometimes characters who are perpendicular will turn parallel (Buffy and Spike).

A plot is not a chain of events. It is not a sequence of rungs like a ladder.

Plot is a spider web. Threads plucked and tightened. Sometimes cut. Sometimes restrung.

And what’s most interesting to us — what’s most understandable and relatable to us — is when the characters who make up this web are not there to serve as PLOT POINTS but rather there to execute on CHARACTER AGENCY that is supported by THE GODDAMN HUMAN CONDITION.

When we read a story, we read the story to look for our own story.

Meaning, we look for things we understand. (And here may be the truest exploration of “write what you know” — it’s less about the facts and data and details and more about the authenticity of the human experience that you should draw upon. You don’t know what it is to karate kick a yeti, but you do know what it is to suffer loss and lies, to want love and experience hate, to have parents or kids or heartbreak or to see death or all those things that comprise the experience of being a person wandering aimlessly around this blue-green marble in space.) If we cannot see things we intimately understand in your characters, then we’re out. If we don’t see humanity, we’re done. If we can’t see ourselves — just a little bit — then we’ll close the book.

If we look for our story and we see nothing we recognize, it’s game over.

Look at your characters.

Who are they?

What do they really want?

What is it about them that we understand? Not the BIG STORY stuff. The little story stuff. The personal stuff. A thing with her mom. Or a lost love. Or a friend who lied. Or the desire to move away from home. Or the need to mend a broken relationship. You can still have the dragons and spaceships and dragonships and whatfuckingever, but find a way to mine the emotional depths of the character. You need to go smaller. Go deeper. Inside, not out.

Stop worrying about all the external stuff.

That still will fit in when you start thinking hard about the internal stuff.

The human condition is the stuff of drama. It’s maybe not why we pick up your book.

But it is why we’ll keep reading.

* * *

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43 comments

  • Dammit, now I want pie.

    There *are* readers out there who care more about plot than the characters, or at least claim to when asked. That’s okay. You can still satisfy them if your characters have trajectories governed less by pinball mechanics and more by human choices, actions, and consequences. Trying to work it the other direction, to satisfy readers who demand real characters when all you have is a role-playing game scenario? Much harder.

  • Excellent examples, Chuck. Thank you for the thorough lesson. But you’re right. It is very simple. It all boils down to us being able to witness the character coping with some of the same struggles we face. We like to see how they handle it.

  • Reflecting now on how a story that’s been a little stuck is a whole lot more about a part of my life that I originally thought it was. A scene I needed to write just became a whole lot clearer. (And then there’s some backstory I need to take into account.)

  • You could write about milking cows and crack me up. I just read this to my husband, who is not a writer, and it entertained him. Have you ever considered writing humor? I would think some graphic noir with lots of sarcasm would be right up your alley. A snarky series for Showtime.

    Anyhoo, love your point. I think there are many writerly types. One of them is analytical. I’m a smasher, but probably more by accident since it seems like a more organic way to write.

  • Fantastic excellence, Sir.

    This is a problem I’ve had in the past (and one I know will creep up again). I’ve realized that focusing more on characters has made writing more interesting for me. I imagine that means my finished stories will be more interesting to readers.

  • This post is fantastic. *slow clap*

    I tend to write plot-driven stories and neglect the protag’s motivations, but I have been working hard on this (my current WIP is SO much stronger now that my past couple revisions have focused specifically on this), and your post couldn’t have come at a better time.

  • This got me thinking about the characters in the novel I’m working on. One of the things I think about when writing is “why are they doing this? What is their motivation?” You need this for every character in your story even the evil ones. Nothing will completely lose me more than having a character that does evil shit just because they are evil. An indie author I had chatted with on twitter for a while gave me a copy of his book which was a decent story with interesting characters, but the bad guy had absolutely no motivation to do evil stuff but at every turn he would do something more evil than the last time he was mentioned in the book. I wanted to use a rusty spoon to scoop out my eyes rather than finish the book. It was like he was using 500 neon signs with arrows pointing at the guy saying in all caps “this is the bad guy” followed by 34.7 exclamation points.

  • This is why my best writing is when the characters tell me what to write, when I channel them. My worst writing is when I ignore them or try to bend them against the fork of unyielding plot. well written, Mr. Wendig

  • Reading your post always have me laughing out loud and you are always spot on! “The human condition is the stuff of drama. It’s maybe not why we pick up your book. But it is why we’ll keep reading.” A perfect summation.

  • Chuck, you reach me. I have been sitting at 26,000 words for months, about to abandon the battle when I stumbled upon your advice for writing a novel. Now I have it as my wall paper on my computer so I see it every day. This advice on characters is another piece that I have needed. Very useful. I am very greatfull.

  • I once had a fellow writer tell me something that really stuck with me.

    “Every character has their own plot arc. Villain, hero, side characters, goofy guy serving coffee.”

  • July 1, 2015 at 1:14 AM // Reply

    The human condition. That’s excellent. My favorite part of this blog is: “You callow, callous motherfucker.” Haha… aaa. Ah, that’s funny. I cried happy tears. That’s how hard I was laughing. (I’m gonna use that.)

  • I liked your examples. I was wondering if it would be possible (without being too controversial) to give some examples of stories that don’t do characterization well and are indeed ‘plot driven’ in your opinion.

    • I’d argue the latest ULTRON is that way — Tony Stark’s character is on display, but his are not real concerns. They’re lofty, global concerns — and as a result, we don’t really understand them. I mean, the movie is fun and everything, but most of the characters feel kinda hollow. That’s not true in the other Marvel movies, to be clear — like, Star Lord has the thing with his mother and her tape and his missing father. Thor has his family issues. Captain America isn’t just about America, but he has Peggy and he feels lost like a man out of time.

  • But it’s magic when those plot elements reveal character agency, when those characters are shoved up against an unyielding castle wall and they choose to do courageous human things despite their setting, their antagonists, and the dragons they must slay.

  • I am totally bookmarking this page. All that gold about the parallel and perpendicular paths of other characters to the main character is stuff I would tattoo inside my eyelids if such a procedure didn’t HURT LIKE THE END OF DAYS. I was going to embark on another of those “Ho hum *sigh* time to beat my head against my manuscript again” days, hoping I wouldn’t suck at it too much because I’ve already used up my weekly chocolate allowance and it’s only Wednesday, goddammit… but after reading this I am all fired up again and ready to kick some story-butt. Thank you times a million, Chuck – please accept this gift of virtual cake from me.

    *presents virtual cake in a funky virtual box.*

    Honestly, virtual’s better – you wouldn’t want a real one from UK-Land today, trust me, it’s flippin’ 35 degrees C over here…

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