Characters are what make stories.
Without characters — to react to stimuli, or to overcome or get broken by obstacles — stories are just a string of meaningless events.
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously stated that character is plot and plot is character.
I guess this means that characters are the core of good storytelling — and plot comes about as a result of characters.
In my own writing, I endeavour to bring character growth of some sort into all my stories, no matter how short they are.
And to do so, I follow 3 simple precepts…
My characters — all my characters — must be likeable, or at least have some qualities with which I can identify.
Without this quality, I cannot empathise with the character and frankly don’t care what happens to them. And when that happens, it shows in the writing.
Characters like Frodo Baggins or Luke Skywalker or Scout Finch are easy to identify with. They are, by and large, moral, personable, endearing people.
Someone like Frank Underwood (from House of Cards), however, is an entirely vile human being — a charismatic and psychotic manipulator of others, lacking even an iota of moral fibre.
However, I personally still identified with him (at least in the earlier seasons) because of his devotion to his wife Claire.
No matter what acts of sociopathy he performed to achieve his aspirations, he still valued this relationship.
(Interestingly, when this dynamic changed in more recent seasons, the show became unwatchable for me.)
So all my characters are in some way appealing — even the most heinous of them will have at least a quality that I find admirable.
Human beings are creatures of habit. We tend not to change our behaviours or principles unless we’re faced with no other option.
To make my characters and their story arcs plausible, therefore, I hit them with more adversity than they can tolerate.
In short, things keep getting worse.
Characters like Ivan Denisovitch and Althea Vestrit and Jason Bourne endure obstacle after obstacle, fighting against a seemingly impossible tsunami of adversity, striving for a point of equilibrium or order once more.
Conflict can manifest itself internally, too. A lot of Holden Caulfield’s angst and rage against the world, for instance, is internalised.
The idea, as I write, is to force my characters into a state of (often uncontrolled) change, so that the qualities about them that I love shine through.
It is often, in fact, those qualities alone that keep the protagonists going.
The crux of any character story is personal growth.
I’ve created characters with whom I can identify and put them through the mother of all wringers, to either succeed or fail. Now, something has to give.
And that thing is usually an aspect of their identity.
Winston Smith survives the terrors of Room 101, to be broken of his hate for Big Brother. Morn Hyland becomes as ruthless as her captors and tormentors in order to save her son. Sandor Clegane, against his better sense of self-preservation, actually starts caring for his prisoner.
It’s all about reconciling the upheaval I’ve just put my characters through.
Having had no choice but to face their challenge, they need to either have accepted the new status quo or fought their way back to the old one.
A character story, done well, will suck me in every time.
There can be other threads to the story — other elements of the MICE quotient — but without character growth, it usually fails to leave an impression.
And so the character arc is crucial to all stories I write.
Because if I’m not emotionally engaged, I can’t expect my reader to be.
All images from Pixabay