Monday, August 17, 2015

Elements of Storytelling: Developing Character

Character is everything. You can have the greatest plot on Earth, but if the characters are boring cardboard cutouts that talk like machines (especially if they’re not machines) then everything else about the story isn’t going to matter. Nobody’s going to care what happens to your protagonist—or even your antagonist. There are four primary elements that are vital to creating a good character: appearance, personality, motivation, and weakness. Every major character should have all four elements well developed, and even minor characters should have at least two if not three.

Appearance: Even in a screenplay for a film, it helps to give the film director some clue as to what to look for when he picks his actors. Describing a character’s appearance is also vital for the artist in your graphic novel to have an idea of what to draw. And those descriptions are all the novel and short story reader will have to visualize the character.

While technical specs are fine and dandy when creating a character, don’t put that crap into your manuscript. It’s boring (not to mention it violates that whole “show, don’t tell” rule). To show how boring, here’s a comparison (using my character, Yavar Thain):

Tech spec version: She stood 6’ tall with a slender build, had long black hair, and dark brown eyes. Her skin was a dark brown. She wore arm greaves over a silk shirt and leg greaves over black leggings and knee-high boots. Her armored cape was made of water dragon scales. On her belt were several weapons.

Show-Don’t-Tell Version: The woman with tightly braided coal-black hair walked with purposeful but quiet steps in soft leather knee-high boots, and her tall lean form moved with a deadly feline grace. Tight black leggings highlighted the movements of the supple muscles in her thighs and calves. The white of her silk shirt made her smooth mocha skin more noticeable where exposed. She could have been easily mistaken for a mere aristocrat were it not for her metal greaves on her shins and forearms, an armored cape fashioned from the silver-like scales of a water dragon, and her belt of throwing daggers and two curved knives. If that weren’t enough, the cold cruelty found within her dark eyes would chill even a battle-hardened warrior.

Not only does the second description sound more enticing to the reader, a bit of the character’s personality also gets revealed in the description of her appearance. And this leads to:

Personality: A well-developed personality is paramount to creating a great character. But just as with appearance the personality should be shown, not told. It isn’t enough just to tell your audience that so-and-so is a likeable outgoing person who happens to be a bit of an airhead. Show his outgoing nature with his body language (“He flashed a smile at anyone who took his fancy”). Prove his likeability with his dialogue and by showing how other characters react to him. And as for his airheadedness, well, that shouldn’t be too hard to show….

Body language, action, and dialogue are your friends when it comes to showing your character’s personality.

Motivation: Hero or villain, everybody has an agenda. Everybody.

Nobody does things “just because” (unless it’s Korgash, and even he only pretends it’s “just because”). And the more personal the motivation, the more depth your character will have. Ask yourself: why is your villain determined to rule the world? Is he addicted to the power? Does he think he can do a better job than the last ruler? Does he have a utopian dream that unfortunately requires a few eggs to be broken?

And why is your hero thwarting him? Is he idealistic (“no one should have that much power. Nothing good can come of it.”)? Does he think he can do a better job than the villain? Or was his family one of the “eggs” that got broken? Of those three motivations, which one makes him more sympathetic to the reader?

Or perhaps it’s the villain who is seeking revenge for his family?

What motivates the characters in your story will have a big effect on the choices your characters will make, and thus will effect the plot in many and unforeseen ways.

Weakness: Every great protagonist (and antagonist) usually has a weakness or character flaw. Superman might be able to juggle asteroids with his pinky fingers, but toss a little Kryptonite his way and suddenly he’s a whiny little wuss. Dr. Doom has a bad habit of gloating at the worst possible moment. And the Hulk reverts back to Bruce Banner when his anger gets spent.

Every Achilles has his heel to deal with, even if it’s just a personality quirk that gets in the way of him accomplishing his goal. What are your character’s weaknesses and flaws? Is he highly intelligent but too arrogant to know when he’s wrong? Is she terrified of trusting others because of past betrayals? Perhaps he’s a hopeless romantic with an ugly face and a hunched back.

Never make it too easy for your characters to accomplish their goals. And the best way to insure they have a hard time is to give them a weakness.

And now that you’ve got the basics, go make some awesome characters.

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