Character Sketching

Okay, so we went all over world building last month/year. Worlds are an important part of speculative stories. But I, and many others with an interest in the category, feel that they are only a part of the story, created to help us examine the important questions. What is human nature, and what is our place in the world?

By showing a world that is different we get the opportunity to show the enduring nature of the human condition in what is hopefully a new light.

However, in order to do that we need something just as important as a good, believable and well imagined world. We need real, believable people to inhabit it. Unfortunately, building solid, believable characters is a much more challenging task that doing the same for worlds. As odd as it may seem, characters can be more complex than worlds. After all, people have free will, worlds don’t, at least not in the technical sense.

So how does one go about creating good characters?

Well, the answer is, it depends. Unfortunately, there’s no one magic recipe for making a wonderful character. The things people normally look at, things like back story, important figures in a characters life, defining events or ideas, are all important but not what really makes a character come alive. They’re the ingredients, but not the recipe. The key is that we relate to them, however those superficial circumstances make them seem different from us. Today, and on the next two Fridays, I’m going to look a little at how that’s accomplished.

Good, relatable characters have three things in common. They start off with little seeming relevance to what’s going on, they show growth and change over the course of the narrative and they make believable choices that hold up through the end of the story.

Let’s look at those ingredients through the prism of the classic film Casablanca. If you haven’t seen the film before, I highly recommend it. I’ll try not to spoil anything for you here, although if you’re genre savvy enough you might be able to guess anyway.

Casablanca starts with a MacGuffin, two letters of transit, being stolen from a pair of Nazis near the beginning of WWII. These letters work their way to the city of Casablanca, where many would like to use them to get passage to Lisbon and on to the United States. There, one Richard Blaine, an American with no political leanings, a self-professed tendency to stick his neck out for no one and who can’t return to the US, runs a night club.

Rick may sound like a very unlikely protagonist to exist in an era defined by its politics and sacrifice, much less to be placed in a story about an item he cannot use. But it’s those very things that make him so useful as a protagonist. He’s just trying to live his life, without all the headaches that stem from the investigation into the missing letters brings. We want to know more about him to find out why he’s avoiding the problem so studiously. Also, his avowed ignorance of the matter means everyone is trying to cajole and convince him – meaning the audience also gets to be cajoled and convinced. A protagonist who simply runs with anything set in front of him isn’t just kind of boring, he’s very hard to understand, as his motivations and reasoning is never likely to be expressed to the audience.

This applies to any character, not just protagonists. The best villains are those who’s goals are not immediately clear, who’s motivations are so dark we do not grasp them at first and who we may not even be able to identify at first. Supporting characters are often roped into their proximity to the protagonist or antagonist, and show us who and what they are in the way they deal with their friend/employer/whatever.

In short, to lay the foundation for a good character, you have to start with someone who makes the reader think, “Now who is this person and why are they here?” After all, they’ll never connect with a character if they’re never spurred to think about him.

Of course, one of the most important parts of learning about a character is looking at how they act. And that brings us to next week’s topic – characters who make believable choices. Hope you’ll drop by next week to hear all about it!

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5 responses to “Character Sketching

  1. While this is a good lense to look at characters through, I disagree with the first item: They start off with little seeming relevance to what’s going on. Sometimes, it’s important for the story that the character has everything to do with what’s going on. This might work for certain genres, but not for many character driven stories. However, I heartily agree with the other two – character change and realistic choices are tricky to write but essential.
    Your example is also excellent.

    • You are right. The idea I wanted to convey (but didn’t get across) is that the character should be shown in a situation they don’t want to be in. Looking at what I wrote again, it’s clear the idea isn’t readily conveyed.
      The reason you’d want to do that is because it instantly places the character in conflict, and allows us to take their measure in a very memorable way. They don’t necessarily have to be in a situation that has nothing to do with them, but they have to find something about the situation they don’t like or, better yet, actively loath.
      Take the movie Mulan for example. When we first see the title character, she is getting ready to meet her matchmaker. She’s doing it because she wants her family to be happy, but she doesn’t really want to be there, for reasons we’re quickly made aware of. This initial introduction tells us who she is and makes her subsequent, very radical decisions believable.

  2. Pingback: Decision Points | Nate Chen Publications

  3. Pingback: Character Changes | Nate Chen Publications

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