Wasted Potential: Because Character's Not Enough

>> Sunday, June 12, 2011

Here's one of those subtle distinctions that, judging by many books I've read, people frequently miss. Having great character(s) in the world isn't enough alone. In order to use a character to his best potential, he's going to have to interact, not just with his environment, unless you've dropped him by himself on a desert island, but with other characters.

For nearly every story, the relationships and give and take between characters are how the story is pushed forward, how the characters learn and grow, how the characters reveal who they really are, warts and all.

A story with only one character is almost stuck telling not showing because it's how people treat each other, how they speak and act toward one another, what strikes them as funny or touching or infuriating that really shows who characters are. Even who they choose to befriend and why.

Seems obvious, doesn't it? Yet this is something authors frequently miss, throwing character mismatches together and forcing a relationship at odds with their personalities. Which isn't to say you can't have different and diverse people interacting together - far from it. Relationships in real life often flourish between people who vast differencest, but rarely 100% different. And friendly relationships are hardly the only kind you can put in your novel.

But the relationships have to be believable just like your characters have to be. Two best friends who never do anything but argue and impede each other (particularly if one is destructive to the other's personality) are not compelling or healthy. Two siblings who never argue are equally suspect. Disagreements, misunderstandings, hurt feelings, anger, all can be part of a healthy relationship, but to be really healthy it needs some real understanding, some support, some trust, some kindness, some compromise, perhaps some humor and some self-sacrifice.

In order to make a healthy relationship work for the story, to bring out the most of the characters (and, by extension, the the idea) there should be both connection and tension in key relationships. This allows growth and exposition painlessly for the reader. Perhaps the main idea provides the tension between them, a racial difference or economic divide. Maybe the idea is a great terror that provides the impetus to bind them together as they have to work on each others strengths against whatever "them" is in the story.

In order to do that effectively, you can't just say they're friendly or shoehorn friendly banter that's at odds with their characters. You have to craft characters that work together, that have complimentary strengths and workable differences. An group of people working together needs to be a team in real life with everyone contributing from their strong suits. In a novel, this is also true, whether the team is a pair or a dozen key players (with different goals and personalities) that make the story go.

And, as important as it is between protagonists and friendly side characters, it has to be so between antagonists and protagonists, too. People can hate each other for weak reasons and bad reasons and misunderstandings, but, in the novel, it's best that the reason plausible and make some sort of sense. A weak or poorly motivated villain is actually very dull and can bring a story to a screeching halt. The more justification the villain has, the more one can see his side of things, the more human he becomes, the more interesting, the more nuanced. Even if his original justification has been warped into something completely horrifying, that original motivation and injustice can really bring a story home to a reader. Can make it all the more real.

And, let's face it, making our dreams and imaginings real in someone else's mind, a reader's mind, is what it's all about. Or, at least it is for me.

So, bottom line, characters need to not only be layered and nuanced and realistically believable, they need to be crafted so that they interact effectively. It's both easier and harder than it sounds. But, if you can do it, really do it, you can really do wonders for an idea.


  • Jeff King

    I need to work on that... my villain seems to be in the back ground, out of focus, and I hate to say it, out of mind.


  • Anonymous

    Sometimes the use of a one-way 'dialogue/interaction' with an inanimate object can provide a fascinating, unexpected, and otherwise unavailable glimpse into a main character's thoughts/feelings just as well as any two-way animate dialogue.  Tom Hanks and his friend 'Wilson' in Castaway come to mind.  Something to consider for novels as well if you wish to add a quirk or two.    Mike Hawthorne

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