Episode 4: Breaking Character
SoggySoul was one of my best teachers in the writing circles of high school.
We met through mutual friend, TT-da-Lamanite, who spent a couple of semesters in Wisconsin. This was in between a trip from Texas to South Dakota, but that's a story for another time. SoggySoul quickly found a place in the group, hitting it off as one of our core three writers. She had a lot more formal training in the craft, whereas TT and I were making things up as we went along.
Our oldest collaboration is The Infection, which I finally dusted off after years of quiet cobwebs. It's here on FP, a little tribute to former ages of writing. It definitely shows its age. I hold a lot of fondness for that project, because SoggySoul taught me profound lessons in the craft of characterization. The topic kept coming up; I was a slow learner.
We kept in touch through to my last summer before college. It was here that she visited characters with me one last time. The hard truth of the matter is that I struggle with characterization—it's always been my weakest area of creative writing. I get too caught up in grand plots and world building; my characters merely along for the ride. SoggySoul told me as much over several conversations and spent time workshopping with me; showing me areas to focus on.
Characters are the vehicle for our stories. This is the case with any story across all genres, but it is essential under the umbrella of speculative fiction genres. And as speculative fiction writers, we can get distracted by the fun topics and ideas we play with. We've all struggled with our characters at one point or another. It's been my experience that the author who masters characterization wins their readers despite any other writing flaws. In many ways, this is the crux of our writing.
If our novel's characters are golden, then the reader will buy everything else that comes with the narrative.
Getting Down to Brass Tacks
I like my alien worlds. I like evil robots, the nuclear apocalypse, epic space battles, and mystic powers that shape destiny. But these things in and of themselves aren't that interesting without the lens of human experience. Readers need a character to connect with; someone who guides them through the otherworldliness of the story and makes it worth their time.
We can start by looking at the people we know and imagine how they'd fit inside the fantastic worlds we create. There's a lot to be said about 'writing what you know'—or in this case, who you know. Every day of our lives we're gaining experience with the human condition through social interaction. There's no shortage of personalities to choose from. Better still, we have literary tools and archetypes to organize this social data in useful ways.
When developing the story, all characters fall into three primary groups: Main (Regular) characters, Recurring (Secondary) characters, and Background (Tertiary) characters. Obviously that list can grow or shrink based on the size and scope of our novel. The premise here is relationship to the narrative; level of importance for conveying the story.
Main characters are at the heart of the story and on which we follow for perspective. This is where our POV centers, either on one or several of these people. This is their experience; their story we're telling. I know I'm using plural statements here, and that's because I enjoy writing larger casts. But often a singular Main character is also the case. At any rate, it is important to focus the bulk of storytelling around them. Recurring characters are those immediately surrounding the Main character(s), while Background characters perform various minor roles. Sometimes they only need one scene to serve their purpose. Recurring and Background only exist insofar as they interact with the Main. If someone gets a consistent POV, they better be one of the Main characters or get bumped up to Main character status. Only novels of staggering length (e.g. epic fantasy) can waste time dawdling with these other two. But we'll talk more about Point of View in a moment.
At the most basic level, there are four dimensions for defining characters: Static, Dynamic, Flat, and Round.
Static characters remain the same throughout the story. Their personalities don't change or evolve. Dynamic characters are the opposite; they experience an arc that profoundly changes them over the course of the narrative. Flat characters only have one or two fundamental traits. Round characters are complex, with fleshed out motivations and attributes.
Not every character needs to be Dynamic or Round, and not every one of them should. Many of our Recurring/Background characters can be Flat or Static and remain interesting while affecting the narrative. They don't exist as examples of what not to write. When well used in the story, we can connect with these latter two in meaningful ways.
However, it is important to mention the inverse. Flat Main characters are horribly dull POVs. And there's a lot to be said about failing to make them Dynamic. That brings us to our next topic.
There's another name for our Main character(s), and I'm sure you've been waiting for me to drop it: Protagonist.
The Protagonist is the core human element that connects the reader with the novel. That connection comes in a variety of forms. They can represent someone from the 'normal world' tossed in the speculative world; an Average Joe we can relate to in the midst of zombies and wizards. They can have attributes, ideals, or skills that we like; maybe things we wish we had or envision in ourselves. They can have emotions, feelings, desires, wants, and other human experiences we sympathize with. I've never been a starship commander, but I know what it's like to care for people I work or associate with. I can relate to the idea of facing danger or having to fight for what I believe in. And I definitely wish I had the skills to be someone like a starship commander.
That's why I like calling characters narrative vehicles. They give us shoes to step into. The Protagonist is essential in this role because they are our POV to the story. We see and feel through their eyes and feelings. When we find ourselves thinking with them, even if we disagree with those thoughts, then we step into the same world as them. If readers make that connection, then they care as the Protagonist goes through the course of the novel. Cultivating the conditions where readers care is the Holy Grail of writing.
This brings us to the idea of an arc. Protagonists are typically Round, Dynamic characters. They're Round because they have multiple points of human traits that readers need to connect with. And they're Dynamic because we care for someone who goes through a struggle and changes. It's part of what we talked about in the previous episode on Story Structure. Our relatable Protagonist usually starts in a status quo position, pushed into a state of disequilibrium where they face conflict and struggle. If we like them, we hope they succeed. The drama in the story is the result of us rooting for them against opposition. The lower our Protagonist sinks on the path of conflict, the greater the reward if they can pull through and conquer whatever force opposes them. Conversely, the greater the tragedy if they can't conquer and win; tragedy is also an emotional reward. At any rate, win or lose, the Protagonist makes a change over the course of the novel. This change is the arc.
The Protagonist can be one or several of our Main characters depending on the number of A-Stories we're telling. In my love for larger casts, I tend to have multiple arcs going on in any given novel. In the Epochal Chronicles, Kyle, Alex, and Skylar are all working towards freeing a captive world from a God Emperor. But along the way, Kyle struggles with military strategy, Alex struggles with an interpersonal relationship, and Skylar struggles with his capacity to help his friends. Protagonists A, B, and C are all working on the overarching conflict of the story, but have individual arcs that move them to make a change. There's a relatively simple way to measure character relation to these arcs: ask yourself how much the story would change without your Protagonist or any of their supporting characters. The more the story changes without them, the more valuable they are to the narrative.
Here is a good point to bring up Point of View again. We've already hammered home the purpose of connecting to the Protagonist, but it's more than simply feeling for them as they go through events. How they perceive and experience those events, translated through POV into the prose, acts as shade and coloring to the entirety of our novel. This is why First Person is supremely popular and effective. An interesting, relatable character we're invested in succeeding can tell so, so much in our novel's text. Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and yes, even Twilight, all were such huge commercial successes because readers gobbled up their perspectives. Swapping the mindsets and personalities of Harry, Katniss, and Bella between novels immensely changes the way those stories would be told. Keep everything else the same; the whole of the plot and unfolding of events. But the way any of those three POVs see the world transforms the entirety of the experience.
It's awfully easy to develop an author's voice: how we tell the story as we see it in our mind. But far more effective is telling the story from the unique perspective of the Protagonist's POV. Their voice, their experience, their retelling of the arc is far more interesting than anything we, the lowly author, could retell from our god perspective. Third or First Person, it doesn't matter—make this their story to tell. And they will win our readers.
I wish I had a firmer grasp on these concepts early in my high school writing. So much of what I wrote was irrelevant because I didn't understand what was important. I never gave anyone a reason to care for my Protagonists outside of expectation. They're the Protagonist; of course you should care about them. Characters we're told or expected to care about fall flat. I could hardly describe them without saying what they looked like, what kind of clothes they wore, or what their role in the story was. The more descriptive we can get outside those superficial points, the stronger the character.
A Few Essential Building Blocks
There are a million and one different ways to build a Protagonist. I would wager nearly all of us use a character sheet or at least have seen different iterations of a profile. They're relatively easy to come by, and a few of them are useful based on our writing methods. I've played with dozens and even developed versions I felt were groundbreaking at the time. The problem is I tend to hold onto trite details that aren't relevant to efficient writing. Far too many of these profiles immediately start with how the character looks. Physical descriptions do have a place in the world of the novel; but it's further down the list.
Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson has two primary metrics for developing characters: Continuums and PROMS. He teaches a college course on creative writing and you can find his lectures on YouTube. Here are the fundamentals of what he's taught me.
In speaking of Continuums, Sanderson refers to three scales we can set from less to more. They are Character Proactivity, Character Competency, and Character Likability (or being Relatable). If we think of these things as a slide bar that can move right or left from one to a hundred, then we can set how much of an attribute a character possesses. Moving the bar up slowly can show character progression and growth over the course of the novel.
Proactivity refers to a Protagonist's ability or capacity to take action. Readers like characters that act and aren't acted upon. It goes back to the idea of the arc; making a change. It's cathartic if a character takes control of their lives. It's hard to get into a story where the Protagonist isn't doing anything when the conflict begins and has to be pulled along with the action. It's also a little difficult to begin a story's First Act without the Protagonist doing anything. This is easily resolved by having the Protagonist active in their status quo. Pixar's Inside Out showed this with Joy, the emotion who was busy bossing the other emotions around inside brain HQ. She had a status quo situation but was in charge and busy within her sphere. Then the inciting event had her and Sadness sucked out of HQ and lost in the deeper parts of the brain; here she took action and began the journey back to HQ. It's easy to stay interested in Joy: she acts regardless of what happens, not merely letting things happen to her like Sadness.
There are ways to play with or subvert this idea, especially over the course of the story. Maybe at the false victory the Protagonist stops taking action, believing the conflict resolved. Maybe at the beginning the Protagonist is too comfortable in their status quo, but feels the Hero's Calling as evil marches on the homeland. But if we want a lethargic character, have them as Recurring or Background. Or at the least a non-POV Main. The POV needs to focus on someone taking action. This keeps the reader invested.
Competency refers to the Protagonist's skills or their capacity to face the story's Big Problem. Surprise, readers like characters that are good at something. Writers sometimes mistakenly have their Protagonists as incompetent or bumbling in an effort to make them relatable. But each of us has something we're decent or capable at. The goal is to leverage what the Protagonist is good at and show them growing more competent at what they need to resolve the conflict of the novel.
In the original Star Wars trilogy, Luke Skywalker is already an accomplished pilot—it's something he's had experience with flying around the farm on a T-16. What he's not entirely competent at is being a Jedi and using the Force. Obi-Won begins training him in A New Hope, enough so to help take down the Death Star (but notice how he relies primarily on his skill as a pilot). In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke trains further with Yoda so that he can face Darth Vader. That doesn't go so well. In Return of the Jedi, he's grown more competent and their next duel turns out differently. We've seen Luke evolve through his character arc and it's far more satisfying in both duels because of it.
Likability (or being Relatable) is simply the different ways or attributes we connect with a Protagonist. The Everyman (and Everywoman!) is great because we see ourselves in them. We like it when Average Joe gets pulled into a speculative world and has to make their way home again. We get to imagine we're in their shoes, dealing with the same fantastic situations. If they hold virtues or beliefs we agree with, then we hope they'll succeed against enemies with opposing views. How they treat others and interact socially can reflect our relations as well. A popular trait I've seen over the years is sass; everybody loves a sassy character.
So think about what you've seen and loved in characters you read about. Think about what you like in the people you interact with. The more our reader can relate to them as a human being, the more they'll care about their struggle. This includes giving Protagonists flaws, weaknesses, and handicaps. It's hard to relate to a perfect person. A character that is entirely too good at something or morally incorruptible doesn't relate to us—it's usually a tool for wish-fulfillment on the part of the author.
Moving onto PROMS, Sanderson created this beautiful little acronym that ties in the essentials regarding character dimension. It stands for Past, Relationships, Obligations, Motivations, and Sensibilities. Each of these things creates a point where we not only show the world through descriptions, but learn it through particular insights or views from the POV character. We're making a line of prose do multiple things—describe the scene and tell it from the unique perspective of the Protagonist. If we must have a profile, these five points are the most critical in developing a POV that colors the rest of the narrative.
To touch on PROMS in brief, consider these ideas:
Past: There will be things in a Protagonist's past that shaped who they are and are relevant to our novel. This will leave emotions on the character; what they see will remind them of these things. Characters don't just pop into existence at the beginning of the story. Everything we interact with reminds us of things in our past. In Ender's Game, Ender's struggle and love for his alien enemies is shaped by his struggle and love for his older brother, who at a time was his enemy.
Relationships: Conveying how people feel about one another; the way they engage in their dialogue with other people. This is the foundation of a lot of stories. We'll spend most of our story with two or three characters interacting in interesting ways. Their adventures are part of these interactions. If two brothers have a rivalry where they're always trying to one-up the other, something as simple as how they sit at the dinner table can convey that rivalry.
Obligations: The social constructs that people have living in a society. Loyalty to family. Duty to a nation. Belief or morality from a religion. We're seeing a large green movement in our culture right now, which shapes the way we look at the environment and industrialization. One character looking at a factory tower will think about pollution and dead birds. Another character standing in that same place will think about their job and putting food on the table for their family. It's all about their responsibilities and commitments—no Protagonist lives in a vacuum free of any obligations or ties.
Motivations: What does our Protagonist want? What drives them forward? Conversely, what's holding them back? This one can be a bit more organic than the others, because characters tend to develop their own motivations as we write. Evolving the story and writing based on our understanding of those motivations keeps us interested in the writing process. Ignoring those motivations and writing purely based on how we want the story to progress can make the scene feel stilted. A reader will pick up pretty quick if a character is doing something simply because the scene demanded it. Do they know why they're behaving the way they do? Do you know why they're behaving the way they do?
Sensibilities: That unique brain chemistry in how we see things in interesting ways. Sanderson had a great analogy for this one: A pile of pencils for one person might evoke, "Ooo, I want to draw something." Someone else might think, "One of these pencils is pointing the wrong way." We can lump in likes and dislikes here. A Protagonist's passions and interests. Their unique little way of seeing the world.
A simple exercise to test our use of PROMS is having our character take a walk through the park. It can be the exact same park with the exact same trees, paths, statues, fountains, and other people walking around. But how they react, what they notice, and what they feel changes dramatically between our Protagonists. Think about your favorite fandoms and imagine characters from those worlds with a day at the park. I've seen this idea taken to funny extremes with the cast of Harry Potter.
There are a lot of other aspects of Characterization I simply don't have time to squeeze into this episode. I haven't even broached the topic of Antagonists. We'll have to return to this subject in due course. But I hope I've built a basic foundation. Enough to get the process going if you feel stagnated. Or maybe shown an insight you hadn't considered before. Hopefully this isn't all recycled Lit.101 rubbish.
Let me know what topics I didn't get to this time that we can follow up on in the sequel, Breaking Character II: Attack of the Mary Sue.