There are some things you can do without in fiction. Flashbacks. Allegories. Some writers even try to do without plots (don’t try this at home, kids. You might hurt yourself.) But one thing you absolutely cannot do without is character.
“We read to know we are not alone,” a character tells CS Lewis in Shadowlands, and while there are as many reasons for picking up a book as there are readers, that one is as good as any.
When it’s three a.m. and you can’t sleep you fill the darkness and the silence with a book. You are transported to a raft on the Mississippi with Huck Finn, or you experience the French Revolution with Sydney Carton. You won’t get your rest, but you won’t be lonely, either.
Characters are what draw us to fiction. Who hasn’t shed a tear over Anna Karenina, or fallen in love with Mr Darcy? Who hasn’t flinched from Annie Wilkes or cheered for Harry Potter? If a writer can create a really compelling character, she is assured her readers will keep coming back. So, how do we do that?
Sometimes, not often, but sometimes a character will pop into your head fully formed and ready to roll. There are times when the character arrives before the story does, but this almost never happens. Most of the time, you have the scenario and you have to construct the characters and plot to go with it.
Suppose you have an idea for a story about a girl who runs away from home, is hit by a tornado, and ends up in some sort of magical kingdom. Oh, let’s call it Oz.
From this scenario, you already know your main character is a young girl, and that she’s headstrong. Now you have to decide why she ran away from home. Is she ungrateful or disobedient? Well, no, we want her to be the heroine of the story, so let’s say it’s because she’s going to have her dog taken away from her. That makes her empathetic and kind to animals.
So, once she’s in the magical kingdom, she’s going to surrender to all the glitz and glamour that magic and sparkly red shoes have to offer, right? Well, no. She has character, our lass. Let’s call her Dorothy. Dorothy won’t let her head be turned no matter how many rubies you plonk on her slippers. She’s brave and loyal. We’re starting to get a picture of her now, aren’t we?
The important thing to know about Dorothy is her motivation is consistent. We know what she wants because she tells us ever three pages or so: “I want to go home…” Everything Dorothy does from the moment her house lands on top of the Wicked Witch of the East is designed to bring her to the Wizard who will, she hopes, help her go home.
So, from this we know what our main character wants and why she wants it. We also know she’ll be resolute and resourceful in her efforts to get to the Wizard. She’ll remain true to herself: she’s kind and sympathetic to others. Of course she is, she’s a heroine!
It’s not all plain-tornado-sailing, though. Dorothy will have to deal with all the lovely wickedness of the Wicked Witch of the West before she reaches the Wizard. Even then, there’s the chance she’ll learn that he’s nothing but a shyster…
Despite the many obstacles along the way, Dorothy won’t give in. She wants to go home too badly.
Let’s now break down the components of the fictional character. They exist in every story. If you are to create believable characters, they’ll exist in your stories, too.
Firstly, there must be something the character wants very badly. It’s the driving force behind everything they do. James Bond wants to protect his nation. Jane Eyre wants independence and self-respect. Scout Finch wants her father to be proud of her. Robinson Crusoe and Dracula merely want to stay alive (or remain undead, in the latter case). The thing is, these are the compelling, bottom-line motivations. Everything the character does is motivated by their primary need.
Of course, along the way, the character might seem to be fixated on something less important. Finch Scout wants to see Boo Radley, for instance, but this is a child’s passing fancy. She wants to understand the world around her and her place in it, and as To Kill a Mockingbird progresses and the character ages, this starts to happen. Throughout it all, though, is her deep love and respect for her father Atticus. His love and respect are all that really matter; everything else is secondary.
The character may not have a conscious knowledge of the deepest motivations, but the reader should have no doubt. All through Gone With The Wind, Scarlett O’Hara endures a Civil War, near-starvation, a series of marriages, and many deaths. Through all this and much more, the one consistent thing in her life is Tara. Whenever there is a problem – Atlanta is on fire; Rhett Butler has left her – her response is the same: I’ll go home to Tara. Of course, Tara isn’t merely her home, it’s symbolic of a time before the Civil War where everything was both hunky and dory. From Scarlett’s perspective, anyway.
Beyond Tara was the war and the world. But on the plantation the war and the world did not exist except as memories which must be fought back when they rushed to mind in moments of exhaustion. (Gone With the Wind, Chapter 25, Margaret Mitchell)
What will Scarlett do to preserve Tara? Whatever it takes. She will lie, cheat, steal, and even kill, but she will protect her home and its inhabitants, no matter what. This leads us to…
Once you know what your character wants, you must ask yourself what he or she will do to get it. Scout will wear a dreaded dress and play the part of the lady against her instincts and her preferences. Scarlett will lie, cheat, steal and even kill in order to protect her home. Jane Eyre will eschew various temptations — a bigamous marriage to Mr Rochester, for instance — in order to preserve her sense of integrity.
Let’s take another example from a famous short story.
At the beginning of The Final Problem, Sherlock Holmes has already survived three attempts on his life by Professor Moriarty. These assaults follow a visit by the Professor in which he tells Holmes, in no uncertain terms, to stop meddling in his affairs.
Holmes takes the Professor very seriously. He knows what this villain is capable of, and calls him “The Napoleon of Crime.” Despite the warnings, however, he will not back down. As he explains to Watson, “I could not sit quiet in my chair, if I thought that such a man as Professor Moriarty were walking the streets of London unchallenged.”
So, it’s easy to see what Holmes wants: To bring down the evil Professor.
We know why he wants it, too: Holmes is all about justice and order. A criminal mastermind just will not do.
What is he willing to do to achieve this? Whatever it takes. When Moriarty comes to visit Holmes, he assures the detective of utter destruction if he does not stop meddling.
“Danger is part of my trade,” I said.
“That is not danger,” said he. “It is inevitable destruction. You stand in the way not merely of an individual, but of a mighty organization… You hope to place me in the dock. I tell you that I will never stand in the dock. You hope to beat me. I tell you that you will never beat me. If you are clever enough to bring destruction upon me, rest assured that I shall do as much for you.”
Holmes is resolute, however, and replies, “… If I were assured of the former eventuality I would, in the interests of the public, cheerfully accept the latter.” The Final Problem, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
By the end of the story, we see that Holmes has gone alone to face the Professor at the Reichenbach Falls. That he does not fall to his death, as Watson supposes, is down to a combination of luck and physical ability. Certainly, he was willing to die if it meant he could rid society of such a creature as Moriarty. That, my friends, is what a hero is made of.
Even Heroes Have Flaws
That said, it’s important to remember that all heroes are flawed. They’d be insufferable, otherwise. Not just heroes, but everyone. Dorothy Gale is impulsive, guided by her heart, and does not think things through. She wouldn’t have ended up in the Oz-pickle if she hadn’t run away in the first place. Scarlett O’Hara is vain, selfish and contemptuous of others. Even Superman lies about his true identity on a daily basis.
Sometimes the flaw is part of what the hero has to overcome, and sometimes it’s the flaw defines the character. Annie Wilkes is driven by her obsession. Take that away and you have… well, not much, really. Tom Ripley is a psychopath; so is Norman Bates. But other than this indifference to human life, I’m sure they’re both lovely lads.
When you build your character, make sure he has something wrong with him. Make it organic to the story. For instance, if he’s always five minutes late for everything that might be merely annoying. But if he’s a spy and he is too late to stop the bomb from exploding, well, that’s a horse of a different complexion, isn’t it? The weight of the flaw changes from one genre to the next. Being a habitual liar might be a necessary evil in a cold war thriller, but it will look very different in a romance, or even in a children’s book.
Of course, where you have character, you also have conflict. Happy stories about happy people who happily get whatever they want without any problem might make for an enviable (if unbelievable) life, but they won’t work for fiction. Conflict is the engine that propels the story forward.
The character is revealed — in life as in books — by how she faces adversity. We’ve seen how Dorothy and Sherlock Holmes manage. They are heroes; they have noble goals and will stand against any sort of evil in order to do what is right. But what happens when the hero is an anti-hero and what they want is something evil? Suppose your protagonist is Dracula. Yes, yes, I know he’s not the hero of Bram Stoker’s novel, that’s Van Helsing. But suppose you wanted to write a different version, a version in which the reader sees things from Drac-baby’s point of view. Like us mortals, Drac wants to live. Or, more accurately, remain undead. OK, so he has to drain the blood of some lusty virgins (they’re always lusty virgins) in order to achieve that, well, that’s hardly his fault, is it? It’s a matter of survival.
Suppose your hero isn’t so heroic. What if Sherlock Holmes decided it just wasn’t worth going up against Professor Moriarty? They agree to ignore each other and co-exist. What would that do to the character of Holmes? Would we still be reading about his adventures more than a century later? Look at Macbeth: a brave soldier he may be, but he’s pretty gullible, really. I mean, three witches tell him a load of cobblers and he just buys it? He’ll believe any old hockum, do any sort of evil, in order to get what he wants. Even kill the King who has been so good to him. Bad man! Go to your room!
Conflict comes in many forms, of course, and not all of it is external. In addition to the wars, bullies, environmental disasters and so forth, the character can be beset by self-doubt, addiction, mental illness and any number of other things. Even something that doesn’t seem like much of an issue for most people, can be a serious stressor for others. If you wash your hands after you’ve been to the bathroom, you have good hygiene; if you do so forty or fifty times a day, you probably have OCD. If you’re gay and glad to be gay, that’s great. If you’re gay and also homophobic, you’ve got a problem.
The character’s success or failure determines the ending. The typical happy ending sees everyone get their just deserts: the waif goes to the ball, marries the prince, and her obnoxious step-family are exiled. Charlie Bucket finds the golden ticket and his meeting with Willy Wonka will drastically change his lifestyle.
Sometimes, though, the hero succeeds, but the cost is so great you cannot really call it a victory. A Pyrrhic victory is one that comes with a massive price tag. Hamlet avenges his father’s death, but ends up dying himself, along with most of the court. Frodo saves the Shire, after a fashion, but he is never able to overcome the wounds he suffered in doing so.
Then you have the character who doesn’t succeed but then decides he never really wanted it in the first place. Stevens, the butler in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, is so entrenched by his position that he is never able to admit that he loves Miss Kenton. When she later marries someone else, he tells himself marriage and a family would compromise his ability to be a great butler.
Finally, there’s the undeniable tragedy of the character who fails to get what she wants and is destroyed. Hedda Gabler, Anna Karenina, and many others fall into this category.
The entire story is about what the hero wants and the sacrifices he’s willing to make to achieve it. Even if he loses, well, how he loses is just as important as how he wins.
Think about your top ten favourite characters in literature. Decide what their primary motivations are; what they’ll do to achieve their goals; what their obstacles and fatal flaws are; and how their stories end. Ask yourself what you would have to change to alter the ending. Who knows, maybe you’ll get a completely new story out of the exercise.