Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. was right. Character is what matters. Before I begin discussing the issue, though, there is something important to say:
A Character is NOT a story.
Some believe that character is “all that matters” or “the most important thing.” Some believe that with a brilliant, magnificent character, the story will practically write itself. That may be the way you write best, but let’s not carry this too far. The character must start somewhere and end up somewhere (setting). AND, something must happen for there to be a story (plot). The character must experience something, and experience it in relationship with other characters lest you end up with nothing but one giant soliloquy.
Characters (and setting in the background) are what a reader “sees” in a story, to be sure. But from the moment the story trigger is pulled and the main character’s motivation is set, every story might be honestly described as: Characters in Experience (not characters in a vacuum). Characters experiencing something in relationship and how they respond to their experiences is the plot. You can’t have a story without a plot. But this post is about characters…
Doctor King had it right when he said people should not be judged by the color of their skin (hair, eyes, height, weight, beauty or lack) but by the content of their character. That is absolutely true of stories. Appearance matters little. Character matters much, hence the name “character.” To that end, allow me to make two points:
First, character, by which I mean the kind of person a writer portrays, matters absolutely in terms of a reader’s like or dislike and subsequent expectations with regards to the story.
Even in a post-modern world where morals and values are deemed to be relative, people are instinctively drawn to these: Love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, gentle-kindness, faithfulness, humility and self-control… By contrast, hate, anger, murder, torture, sadism, masochism, treason, betrayal, flaming ego and hedonism are not endearing qualities.
Any story worth reading will show these traits (pro and con) in action (in relationship with other characters) and in the deeds and thoughts of the main character. If the story is an external one, it will be more in deeds. If it is an internal story it will be more in thoughts, but the traits will be the same.
It is one thing to describe Cinderella as a good girl, but it strikes home when she responds to her insensitive stepsisters with kindness and positive words. When she responds to her stepmother’s demands with faithfulness and hard work (and no complaints) we begin to really see her goodness and begin to see the unfairness of her position. At that point, we begin to root for her. That we will be happy at the end is already a foregone conclusion, but that brings me to my second point about character:
Second, characters are understood by readers by what they show, not by what they say. This is NOT a post about “show, don’t tell.” That overused expression is not exactly true, anyway.
The Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz (wise but terrible and mysterious) is told about through most of the book/movie. Dorothy and company (and the readers/viewers) are set to believe the terrifying show when it happens. Only Toto, the dog, is not fooled. When the dog pulls back the curtain, though, and they actually get to meet the man, he “shows” himself to be a nice, kindly old man and very different from his P. R.
People believe what they see, and the people they meet, not just what they are told. Set your friend up on a blind date and tell them the date “is a nice person.” See what reaction you get.
Likewise, in Cinderella, the Stepmother is called “wicked,” a telling term. She also shows that wickedness in her treatment of Cinderella and in piling on the work, but there is nothing wrong with the description, “wicked.” The stepsisters are selfish, lazy and insensitive. In some shortened versions of the story, they are simply named that way. In most, though, they are also shown lazing around on the couches, eating candy and making snide and cruel remarks while Cinderella cleans out the fireplace. OK. To some extent, show, don’t tell matters, but it isn’t an absolute. Even so, it is important to understand that characters are known by what they do (show) not by what is told about them or even by what they say.
Consider politicians. The words are great… but then they get into office… (action and dialogue in the next post). Characters must be seen to be believed…