Good Stories Need Good Characters—Day 1

If you’d told me a year ago I would be writing about good stories and specifically highlighting characters before plot and theme, I might not have believed you.

I guess, to be honest, I would normally start with theme, but since I already wrote a 25-part study of the topic, I will move on to the Next Most Important Element.

But before I do, here’s some “for free” info about theme, from writer Carole Gift Page ( the Heartland Memory Series, and Becoming a Woman of Passion) who taught at the recent Christian Writers’ Association conference I attended: theme is the base of the triangle that makes up story. The sides are characters and plot. This too: the story is like a beautiful pearl necklace, with the theme as the invisible thread that holds the rest together.

One more clarification. I am only calling characters the Next Most Important Element because I have learned readers must care about the people in the story in order to care about the story itself. Having said that, however, I also want to point out that readers will put down books that are nothing more than long-winded character sketches. Something has to happen, but it has to happen to characters who matter.

In other words, there’s a symbiotic connection here that is essential. So, in saying that characters are the Next Most Important Element, I am not denigrating plot. The two really are the sides of that triangle Carole Gift Page described: you need them both or you have no triangle at all.

Characters who matter. That’s the critical point in creating characters, but how is that done? What, after all, makes a character matter to a reader?

Books have been written on this subject, but here are some things that I’ve come to believe are essential.

  • Strength with vulnerability. A character who is capable, admirable, winsome, but with a touch of weakness that makes him realistic but also endearing. It’s a bit like Clark Kent hiding inside Superman. Note, the reverse—a bit of Superman hiding inside Clark Kent—is not the kind of character readers typically love.
  • Independence. The protagonist isn’t a follower. He is generally the trendsetter, the leader, the catalyst. He sees the solution when no one else can, takes the path least trodden, faces the insurmountable odds when everyone else runs. She is the one who sets herself apart with her choice for a career or her choice to renounce her career. She’s willing to go it alone. Readers admire that courage.
  • Action. The main character must not exist to experience whatever befalls him. He must take the initiative, decide to engage his world, and, for right or wrong, make things happen. Along this line, she is self-aware. She knows she has weaknesses and wants to overcome them. In fact, much of what moves her to act is her desire to be better than she knows herself to be.
  • Are there others? I’d be interested in what makes a character matter to you.

    Published in: on October 16, 2006 at 12:01 pm  Comments (5)  
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