How I regard and interact with characters in my stories
|CHARACTER FIRST OR PLOT FIRST?|
Authors have different kinds of relationships with their characters. Some treat them as chess pieces in the master plans of their novels. In this case, characters are like puppets tasked to perform their role in the drama preordained by the plot. For such authors, the story comes first and the characters are but bit players on the author's stage.
Other authors regard their characters initially as strangers with whom they develop an authentic relationship during the act of writing. They then share this process of revelation with the reader. For these authors, the characters dictate the storyline leading the author and the reader in unexpected directions. The characters take on a life of their own and the author interacts with them as he develops his story.
Personally, I find myself between these two extremes. There are key characters in my stories who have a life of their own and who shape the plots and recast them in their own image. But there are also secondary characters who if I am honest perform bit roles and personalize themes crucial to the storyline. An author is telling a story but with the key characters contributing to and sometimes dictating that storyline.
So the conventional distinction is between:
Protagonist - heroes and team
Antagonist - villains and team
Round (or complex) - more interesting and developed characters
Flat (One-Dimensional)characters - the ones you give the bit parts to.
REVEALING CHARACTERS THROUGH QUESTIONS AND PHASED IMPRESSIONS
Having read through some secular appraisals of character development born of atheistic worldviews, secular psychology, and nihilistic philosophers I find myself slightly depressed and with a feeling that the world has been shrunk by these authors into something less than its former glory. So I find myself asking different questions that psychiatrists, HR interviewers, and Intelligence agency profilers about the essential features of a person's character. Characters are to some extent self-defined and to some extent communally defined by their spirit, words, and actions and how these are perceived by themselves and the communities they belong to.
I would suggest that characters tend to reveal themselves in real life in a phased way. A first impression is formed on the basis of physical appearance, cultural clues revealed in their initial actions and speech, and the uniforms and masks the characters choose to wear during that first encounter. So a phased approach is the best one when developing a character in a book also.
Beyond that first moment, the characters develop over time as a story unfolds and as we question them. We can use dialog and action scenes to uncover our characters as we allow the reader to engage with questions about them in an authentic and natural way? We need to be gentle with our readers and not infodump all over them?
Second impressions reveal deeper insights into a person's mission, identity, communal belonging, likes, and dislikes.
The deeper insights relate to secret pains and pleasures, the real call on their lives, and their relational history.
The deepest insight is into the person's faith, by which they attach their own story to a larger metanarrative that is more universal and powerful
CHARACTER PERSONAL QUESTIONS
A) FIRST IMPRESSIONS - what we know about a person at the first meeting.
Physical - what do they look like?
Functional Strengths & Weaknesses, beauty, and ugliness, dimensions, superficial health, age, personal fitness, smiles or frowns, interactive or isolated, bored or excited, purposeful or chaotic, aggressive or passive
Chosen masks or uniforms - was this a chance encounter or did they have time to prepare for it? How do they introduce themselves, public skills, and actions? Are they affected or genuine?
Their chosen uniform. The projection/mask they choose to wear into that first encounter, clothes - armor or invitation, controlled or chaotic, clean or dirty, groomed or disheveled, anonymous or flamboyant, funny or boring
Cultural clues, What can we tell about them in their first words and actions?
language, class, background, wealth, confidence, humor - what do they laugh at - others or themselves, Glass half full, glass half empty
B) SECOND LEVEL - what we find out about a person quite quickly
Mission - What is their public declared mission?
Their choices, purpose, direction, hope,
Identity - to whom do they belong? Themselves or others? How do they define themselves? A job is for a company. A skill set identifies them. Opinions place them. What are their virtue triggers? Whose jokes do they laugh at?
What is their place in this world? Aspiration?
Sanity, - are they toxic? How are they crazy? What is their crazy trait?
Friends and enemies - the main people or things on their side or in their way, the ones they obviously like or dislike.
Sense of belonging - introvert or extravert, isolated or authoritative
Superficial joy and pain - what makes their eyes shine? What energizes them? What sucks their life force away? - Joy is more public than pain for optimists, pain is more public than joy for pessimists.
C) DEEPER IMPRESSIONS AND REVELATIONS
Real Mission - real ambition, real direction
Relational History - Love/Hate Relationships, parents, siblings, marriage, children, wider community, love, and hate - experiential overview, isolated, relational positive or negative - what comes out in contact with that person - someone who left home and never returned to parents again did not like them very much - why? Some wounds heal and others fester.
Real joy and pain - the greatest pain and joy, child, young adult, middle age, old - their secret pains and their deepest joys.
Discipline - Broken or purposeful, focused or scattered
Deep Experience - unique experiences, acquired concealed skills
D) THE MAIN MOTIVATION FOR A PERSON'S LIFE
Faith- the meta-story they attach themselves to or by which they shape their lives in rejection. Are they saved, false/uncertain, or dammed by their bigger story- the deepest motivation patterns of the person's life. I put this as the deepest question because a dog collar or physical cross may still hide a devil or a pagan. You do not really know a person's true faith until the other questions above have been answered.
INTEGRATION WITH FIRST IMPRESSIONS
Are people what they say they are?
Genuine (saint) clean mask, clean soul,
Hypocrite - clean mask, dirty soul. Some wear masks that do not really fit while others are more convincing and wolves amongst sheep.
Complicated (struggling - most people are a mess of darkness and light with messy masks that do not quite fit and messy souls),
Anonymous greatness (those who are better than advertised) - dirty or messy masks, clean souls
Pure evil - dirty masks, dirty souls
A person's light and their darkness, fruit, and sins. All too often people find each other's darkness more interesting than their light but this kind of impulse may be the consequence of a downward direction in a culture and a reader's life. Darkness can become entrenched by a persons choices and needs to be continually challenged with choices that lead upwards. Evil characters give the reader choices as they turn away or reject them and follow the hero into the sunshine instead. The willingness to choose the light in a character can be a difficult one for a reader and requires a special kind of encouragement from a writer. Bring the reader with you along the narrow uphill road to the shining city, raise them to the challenge, rather than sliding with them easily down the smooth road that leads to the swamp. Make your readers into heroes.
Fruit reveals the light in a person in the context of their relationships and impacts on others.
What is the Fruit of this character's life?
love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control
A person's sins reveal their darkness.
sexual immorality, impurity, and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy; drunkenness, orgies
HOW DOES A CHARACTER RISE OR FALL?
Direction: rise or fall? Characters do not always learn, they both rise and fall in the real world and should do so in a book also. Is their direction heaven or hell? Is their loyalty to Christ or AntiChrist? The momentum of their lives reflects the kingdom they belong to.
1) Conflict adds color to a story and helps to provoke the questions the reader needs to engage with in the story. A clear antagonist and protagonist is a communication tool that simplifies understanding for the reader. But a good story is not always just about the conflict between a protagonist and an antagonist. Indeed the greatest story of all time, the best-selling book, and the most widely distributed piece of literature ever - the Bible hardly mentions Satan except in a few chapters where the reasons for his doom and inevitable defeat are explained and demonstrated. It is not that interested in exploring the reasons for his rebellion and fall not his futile ambitions for the future. The exploration of God's character is the all-consuming focus of the work. Indeed the same could be said to a lesser extent about the Quran though less so about the Gita and Hindu writings. These are the writings that dominate human consciousness and have truly transformed the world.
2) Some truths are already self-evident while self-serving speculations and mythologies are often the product of oversized egos rather than faith. Stories that seek to displace the overarching metanarratives of Divine revelations and prophets with pleasing tales here today and gone tomorrow are doomed to fail in the long run. The writer's temptation is always to innovate, shock, and disturb, but some things cannot be improved on though communicating their value always requires creativity.
3) Humanist psychological and character frameworks are useful only as far as they go. The problem is that they lack an overall perspective that extends into the theological and indeed supernatural realm. They tend to be historically short-lived constructions that only survive as long as the ideology that underpins them remains popular. One is reminded of the Communist new man. Now liberalism has its own psychological proponents to articulate its essential individualism and idolization of individual choice and expression in a world in which Chinese communalists and Islamic Jihadists grow in number daily.
4) We need to be able to connect to a character and so they need to be plausible and authentic to us. That realism is crucial to the readers buying into the character in whatever locations we place them.
5) Clashes between personalities add to the drama and the plot. But sometimes they may also distract from the storyline and the shared purposes. Conflict must complement the deepest purpose of the plot and victories and defeats both serve their purpose. No character is perfect and while they learn they do not always overcome their failings, employ their strengths to maximum effect nor hide or reduce the impact of their weaknesses completely. Individuals live in communities and communities are made up of individuals.
6) Using our own experiences adds authenticity and weight to what we say about our characters but we also need to go beyond those experiences and be able to empathize outside of our own immediate experiences to create truly distinctive and interesting characters. There is a balance to be struck here. This is not a journal of our own thoughts it is the creation of new possibilities and experiences also.
7) The backstory makes the man/woman and explains foibles and dispositions. The overcoming of bad experiences, learning from them, or being caged or crippled by them all have their impacts on characters. Choices made by characters must overcome a historical weight that needs explaining to a reader. This or that decision was hard because...
8) Dialog makes a piece come alive and helps engage readers with the questions and the answers, the different perspectives, giving opportunity for drama and comedy. I have a tendency to info dump and to prefer characters with something to say. But not all characters are wise or coherent and not all have to make sense. The noise of the conversation should not distract from the plot but adds depth, comedy, and drama to the scenes and characters engaged in it.
9) I do wonder at some of the latest Marvel films and indeed Netflix productions whether there is a machine input. Basically, the plots are repeats of themes that worked before, the product of impact analyses of what works in the marketplace. The characters are exaggerated portrayals of the things that the audience most wants to see, impossibly attractive, toned, strong, fast, clever, overcoming pains and wounds that should have floored them for years not hours. The messages are confused or shallow sound bytes in the human story and the morals are relativistic. The productions lack soul and depth. They entertain without educating or taking us deeper into the human psyche.
10) JRR Tolkein developed some powerful characters in his works. But he was not an Aragorn or Gandalf or indeed even a Frodo in real life. These are fictional characters that draw power from extensive reading, from an insight into the male psyche (his female characters were not as developed). His monsters and indeed the Dark Lord Sauron are also not real but we can see echoes of Hitler and Stalin in them as these were the tyrants of the time. His theme of battling against evil, that that battle cannot be taken for granted, that there are many times when it seems all is lost and yet the heroes give on going nonetheless is a deeply realistic and powerful one that echoed the times in which he wrote. This is despite the fantastical nature of the parallel universe he tried to build. Having read his works multiple times I have moved from a love of this fantasy world and characters he created to a suspicion that he built a culture of dreams that has distracted people from more important themes. He has built entertainment and characters unconstrained by the real-world rules and invited people's imaginations to live in this world. Disney, Marvel, and indeed the fantasy literature genre generally are echoes of his efforts to open up the virtual world of dreams to those who worked in factories in dull repetitive roles, fought in endless wars, and saw tragedy after tragedy in their lives. But for a generation at peace as we have been these last decades maybe it helped our culture sleepwalk into the same troubles he was escaping from. Too busy watching Prime, Netflix or Disney we have stumbled into Plague, War, and Famine still smiling and living in a fantastical world that does not help us deal with the challenges of the real world.
11) Great fiction gives us a real insight into the struggles of our age and equips us to persevere and manage those struggles. Shakespeare built pride in a new nation struggling against larger continental powers and wove his stories into the national story. Dickens inspires a social justice movement with his insights on the poverty, inequality, and injustice of his times. Tolkein equipped a world living mundane and bloody lives to dream and have hope. But today who can speak to a world gone virtual where human connection and insight are breaking down and yet the catastrophes still come like a flood. Who can drag readers kicking and screaming out of their dream world fantasies to deal with the person next to them and the tragedies all around them?