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…
Characters in action and dialogue
I was thinking the other day that writing is like poker. Style is important (the quality of the writing), and we strive for it to be an ace in the hand… but that is not what this series of posts is about. Setting, Character and Plot are the other three aces a writer needs to have that ultimate winning hand. True, four twos can be a powerful hand, so the analogy breaks down at that point, but in so far as possible, we strive for four aces.
The fifth card, the joker, is a post I may attack at a later date. For the present, I want to focus on these three: setting, character and plot; and this time the topic is character.
If we understand that character is a matter of internal dynamics, we understand that the insides of a character may be full of doubt and conflict. Most of us are. Plenty of writers warn against cardboard characters. Cardboard characters supposedly lack depth because they are either too good or too evil without mitigating traits (internal doubt and conflict). That certainly can be true and it is worth being careful to be sure your characters are not cardboard. Even so, sometimes (some might say too often) cardboard characters do happen, but just to go against the grain, let me also say this: Sometimes, a character may very well be single minded, without any doubt or conflict, like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings who had a only one motivation: for his “precious.” Sauron, also, had no good (conflict) in him, but then he did not exactly play an active role in the story…
Consider this note from real life: Despite our best laid plans (which oft gang agley, like, for example, our New Year’s resolutions) it is important to understand that our actions are determined by our motivations (what we truly feel, believe and think important) and our motivations are determined by who we really are on the inside. It is no different in stories. Actions will always be determined (apart from some mind control) by what a person believes, feels about things and knows to be true. It will be determined by what they are capable of doing on the inside, not what the writer or reader wants to happen on the outside.
When your character walks into the room and finds the monster, what will they do? Will they run back the way they came, cower in the corner in the hope that they will not be seen, draw their sword? Will they freeze in panic, fear or indecision, or will they have the presence of mind to try and find a way out?
People will respond differently to the same situation. They will even see it differently, such as the six different versions of what happened when the two cars met head-on. The reason for those differences is on the inside of those people. In the same way, characters in a story will not act, respond, or process their experiences in the same way, nor should they.
Likewise, we should understand that dialogue is a result of those same internal dynamics. People sometimes wonder and ask how to make their dialogue “realistic.” Suggestions range from eavesdropping to examining your own conversations to seeing how other writers do dialogue. None of these suggestions are bad (other than possibly the eavesdropping one), but I would suggest instead taking a look at the characters themselves.
Dialogue, like action, comes from the inside-out. Who we are inside will determine what we notice, what we are likely to say about events and how we are likely to say it: gruff, kind, shy, loud, etc. It will also determine whether or not we keep our mouth shut. We all use the same words, in case you never noticed, but as with action, our dialogue will vary based on what we feel, believe about things, what is important to us, and what we know to be true…even when we are mistaken.
There is no substitute for a writer knowing their characters in the depths of their…character. In fact, I believe the better we know our creations, and the more we let their internal being show itself on the outside, the more “realistic” both their actions and dialogue will be.