Writing Character

Many of the articles on writing fiction differentiate between character-driven stories and plot-driven stories. I find the distinction is a bit of a misnomer as all stories are really character-driven. For example, James Bond stories may well be action-filled but without Bond committed to his goal/mission there would be no story at all.

What I believe the real distinction is between action stories that have strong external conflict (like the Bond movies) and those where the conflicts are more of an internal or interpersonal nature. For example, the relationship between a father and daughter as in the 1981 movie ‘On Golden Pond’.

So what is character?

Writers may well describe their characters in terms of physical attributes — eyes, hair, physique etc. And the character’s appearance may well be important for him or her to fit the needs of the story. But these attributes are not what make the character. A character is defined by his/her behaviour. That is, ‘what’ he/she does an ‘why’ he/she does it. And these questions will only be answered in a story, when the character is in the midst of conflict.

There is a wonderful quote by Martin Luther King Jr. that illustrates this point:

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Of course MLK wasn’t addressing a writers’ conference at the time. But it is as true in the world of fiction as it is in the real world. A person’s character is defined by what they do.

Why characters do what they do depends on a number of factors:

  • their beliefs about themselves and the world (often based on their past experience)
  • the values they hold dear and the conviction with which they hold them (eg Family, Justice, Love, Fair Play, but also negative values — Self Interest, Revenge, Jealousy, Power.)
  • their personality: introvert/extrovert, stoical/flamboyant, talkative/quiet, irksome/ compliant, and their personal quirks.
  • their personal wants and desires and their willingness to follow them.
  • their hopes and fears.
  • their special skills (super spy skills like James Bond, super detective like Colombo, or archer (Robin Hood, Katnis)
  • their weaknesses and flaws.
  • the influence of others.

Some of these factors obviously overlap. A character driven by personal self-interest with no regard for others is going to have a serious character flaw, and that character flaw may be attributed to something that happened to them in childhood or to the bad influence of another character.

Comic book characters often have dark histories. For example, Batman’s dark character is very much the product of witnessing his parents’ murder and wanting to extract justice. Similarly many of Batman’s villains have a past that drove them to villainy.

A character may also hold conflicting values. For example, a mother might want career recognition but this value may conflict with her family value and her love of her child and husband. These are sources of internal conflicts.

Similarly, a character may long to pilot a space craft, but if he/she does nothing about it, nothing happens. Desire alone won’t drive a story if there is no willingness to commit. Main characters therefore need to drive themselves forward towards a tangible goal. Otherwise they are just uninteresting reactive characters.

Some writers find it easy to craft their characters. They know them well and how they will respond in difficult situations. Other writers may discover the true nature of their character when getting to know them in the course of the story. There is no right way or wrong way to develop a story.

Some writers pick a concept for the story, and then mould the character to fit the concept. Others may start with a character they find interesting — for example a one-legged dyslexic detective. And then look to find plot situations that will stretch the detective.

Writers also need to understand how a character changes during the course of the story-line. This is the character arc. He/she may start weak through inexperience and gather strength to overcome that weakness during the course of the conflict. For example, Luke Skywalker that moves for farm boy to Jedi Knight. Or he/she may have a negative arc. For example, the transformation of Anakin into Darth Vader.

But not all characters have an arc. These characters are resolute in their beliefs and cannot be torn away from their chosen path. This can apply to both good characters and evil characters. Nothing changes them.

Knowing how a character is going to respond to story conflict is part of the job of a good writer. We are not just concerned about the results of the ‘the quest’ or ‘challenge’ the main character faces. We are also concerned with how it affects the main characters and whether it makes them better or worse. This is the emotional effect of story on the reader who follows in the path of the hero/heroine. And this is what connects the writer to the reader.