Stories revolve around your heroes, your protagonists, and the protagonists revolve around your stories. Just as you have the storytelling essentials (plot, crisis, jokes, exsanguination), you need the building blocks for the people who populate the story.
People make stories, tell them all the time. They have a formula. But why does that lead to so many stilted characters? People forgetting that they have to put in as much work into people as they do the narrative? Laziness? Income disparity?
That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.
I need some help. And please don’t laugh. It’s historical fiction, set in Victorian England. There’s a great story here, with something I’ve worked on regarding the “death mask makers.” I just don’t know how to make a protagonist fit in there!
—Ellen Friend, Oakland, Calif.
Ellen, you’ve a dilemma most kind. Better to have no character than a bad one. Can’t help with specifics. I’m not Writing All Clearly. But if you’re going to fit a standout character in there, here’s what she/he/it will need.
Sorry, “being too perfect” doesn’t count. Mind you, the first thing we think of is “character flaws.” And even that’s off base. You can find a captivating tale in the one whose failures are in his abilities (“failures at shark training”), rather than the cookie-cutter failure of morals (“the sharks don’t trust his wandering heart”).
Think of someone you know, someone who doesn’t mind you being around. Try to divine how they got to be the way they are now. Raised by aliens. Took bully-karate in the fifth-grade. Learned to drive on an Abrams tank. Worked with other hard-working ‘Mericans at a factory that built factories. How did it shape this alien-reared, bully-chopping, tank-driving, factory-building friend of yours? You get the idea.
3. Unexplained quirks
“Waiting yet again, he worked at plucking what he thought to be unworthy hairs from his goatee.”
“She stirred her coffee with a fork she’d pulled from the drawer.”
You all do weird stuff, and I never bother to ask you why. That’s what makes you characteristic. And also, weird.
There’s an innate satisfaction to the character who changes, be it for the better, worse, or worser. One wins the lottery, distorts into a psychotic miser, blows his brains out with a discounted Glöck. A tentative quarterback loses an arm during a violent scrimmage of blade football, regathers his courage, overcomes stigma, and adjusts to a bionic limb to rally his team to victory. Basic, but stories are about moving from point A to point B. You can do the same with a character too. It doesn’t work if you’re writing about one who traces his wrinkles with sorrow and regret as he raises children and chickens on a farm, who in turn raise children of chickens and children on a farm.
Because people are consistent, creatures of routine. Even the spontaneous ones. They’ll consistently do something stupid.
6. Something special
Why did you pick this person for your story? Could I have substituted your brooding, secretive killer for a fat man who rides killing luck to satiate his lust for pilfering one’s refrigerator? What about your independent, strong-willed prairie woman? They’re practically assembly line items by now. Why not someone who’s dependent, with a will broken by too many long winters? Your hardboiled detective? Five cents a dozen. Warp in a straight-laced, tidy-mouthed, teetotaling moralist of perversion, ridding the underworld of “sin and debauchery.” See how that manages. If you’re putting someone in where a story’s to be told, make them worth telling the story about.
Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com) and followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong). He stirs coffee with a butter knife.