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)  

    5 Comments

    1. I also think that a character who grows is compelling as well. If all that happens affirms the character, that’s flat, in my opinion.

      My female MC is a doormat who will be a queen. A lot happens to her to get her to choose leadership.

      Also, conflict. I love conflicted characters; majorly conflicted and flawed characters.

      I’m not sure if I agree with your Superman analogy; ie., Bilbo Baggins. I’m also not sure I agree with action assessment, but I have to think about why not.

      As always, Rebecca–great post–I’ve been busy so this is the first chance I’ve had to visit in a while!

      Regards–

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    2. Chris,

      I’m glad for your input. I’d love to come up with a list of traits and do an actual study. What makes a reader love a character. Problem is, that could easily lead to forulaic writing. Better to see the trends, I suppose.

      I agree about the change or growth in a character. That’s key.

      I’d love to hear more of your thoughts about the Superman analogy–why you disagree. Since you mentioned Bilbo, I’m guessing you are saying you like the reluctant hero.

      I like the fact that the reluctant hero becomes a hero. What I’m looking for, though, is what makes a reluctant hero someone we can love instead of wanting to slap him upside the head for not getting out there and saving the day. I think we like Bilbo in part because when he needed to save the day, he did, and learned about himself in the process so that more and more he became Superman.

      Becky

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    3. Just to pick on you, I’ll play devil’s advocate a little. 0=)

      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.

      I think maybe it’s more accurate to say we don’t care for invincible characters, because we can’t relate to that. I’ve got one that technically should be invincible (physically), but I crippled him psychologically. On the other hand, I hated, hated Achilles in the Iliad, even though he had that bizarre heel.

      I think it goes back to your first point, really. Aragorn, far as I could tell, had no real weakness…other than a soft spot for the weak (which is why he loved the Hobbits). And I loved him for it.

      Unless you were trying to point out the flipside, where the character is so weak (and usually it’s when you put a strong female character next to a slightly weaker male character that this happens) that you just want to put the guy out of his misery.

      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.

      Yes and no. Definitely not into doormats. However, I’m not really a fan of the hero so powerful he needs, nor wants, anyone else. Maybe that goes back to your vulnerability point. A hero unwilling to include his buddies, at the very least, just comes off an arrogant jerk to me. I agree on the courage thing…but to me, in the case of going to the police: that’s just common sense. You’d be stupid not to. But again, that’s me, and I’m still a wannabe. 0=)

      I think what matters to me are the characters who give a flip. The ones who, while they may not start out that way, have some semblance of honor and courage. But sometimes you get a character who is inherently helpless (this character is usually not the main character), and their sheer innocence is endearing.

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    4. Interesting thoughts, Kaci. Thanks for your feedback—makes me think. I don’t think we are truly in disagreemen.

      First, I was indeed thinking of the guy who is so weak you want to put him out of his misery—which is how I see the “Superman” (movie version) Clark Kent (not the TV “Smallville” version, nor the movie “Superman Returns” version, though he was seldom Clark Kent in that one). If a guy is “hiding” his strength to the degree that you see him as the weakling rather than seeing him as the hero with a vulnerability, I don’t find him compelling.

      As to the independence issue, I maybe should have called it “leadership” but it’s not really that either. I mean a catalyst doesn’t lead, but he causes things to happen. But as a trendsetter, certainly the protag has to have a network that will emulate the trend, and as a leader she would need people willing to follow. Think “point man.” It’s not that he’s the Lone Ranger without Tonto, or without the backing of the Sheriff. But the quality is her willingness to put herself at risk by stepping out, maybe not knowing if the people she counts on will follow. It’s really a sacrifical trait, which is something I want to talk about more today.

      Becky

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    5. […] characters, including creating Christian characters. You can see the beginning of the first series here. I mention this because in discussing heroes, I don’t want to simply regurgitate information […]

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