This is the second post in a series titled The Elements of Story. In the first post I described WorldBuilding, which is what fleshes out the setting of a story and makes it feel real. In this second post I will be talking about the importance of having legitimately real, complex characters, and how to build a character arc.
Characters are what really grab an audience. A story might be good because the plot is fast-paced and engaging, because it has deep meaning, or because we can relate to it. But what really captivates are the characters that we learn to love, admire, or hate. More than anything, characters are what will keep readers coming back to the same book over and over again, or what will impel readers to read the second installment of the saga, or what makes us remember a story long after we have put the book down.
In order for the story to be good, the characters must feel real. They can’t be wooden copies of a stereotype. They must be fleshed out, have motivations and feelings and agendas. For this to be so, a writer must be a constant studier of humanity. He or she must observe the people that surround him on a day to day life and try to understand them, or think about what it must be like to walk in their shoes. The more familiar we are to the human condition, the better writers we will be.
People sometimes say that the main character must be likable. It’s important not to confuse this with having the MC be a hero, or a goody-goody. You can have a MC that is an antagonist or an anti-hero, but he must have something that appeals to the audience and makes them like them. Humor, a dark and troubled past, pure intentions but complicated situations, etc. If the reader cannot relate to the MC, it’s more than likely he will not end up relating to the rest of the story. Hence, likeability is important, but not to be confused with morality. We can have an entirely amoral and likeable MC, if it’s done well.
It’s also good if characters are complex. If they do or say unexpected things, if there’s more under the surface than what the reader initially expects. They can even be contradictory, and say one thing and do another. Human beings are like this in real life, so why not in story?
Now, for the character arc.
Characters must begin at one place in their life at the beginning of the story and end up at another one by the ending. They must grow and change (either for better or for worse) due to the choices they have made that have led to the circumstances that affect their life. A character can’t be flat, or one-lined. This is boring. The MC of my debut Dark Fantasy novel, Daniel, starts off as being a regular 22 year old with an attitude and ends up hardened by the end of the novel, after having suffered.
We aren’t immune to things that happen to us in our life. Characters, also, aren’t immune to things that happen to them in the story. They, too, must act, react, and change. Just as we do.
There are the basic fundamentals of character building in the story. The third post in The Elements of Story series will be Pacing. How do we write a story in a way that keeps the readers engaged and entertained from the beginning of the page up to the very end?