Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Characters Matter

Characterization is a crucial aspect of fiction. We know this because it's drilled into us at school, in workshops, and in all the how-to books and journals we read. The protagonist must come across as real and interesting enough to pull the reader all the way through to the end of the story. A common mistake, however, is to focus too much attention on the protagonist. When you read a great book or watch an outstanding film, it's usually the antagonist that lifts the story above the ordinary.

Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western film
A favorite villain: Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West
Protagonists, especially those of the heroic breed, are bound by rules and common perceptions that somewhat inhibit creativity. Antagonists, on the other hand, are wide open for manipulation. They can be bad to the bone like Hannibal Lector or Chigurh. They can be nasty or evil, but mend their wayward ways like Ebenezer Scrooge or Darth Vader. The reader may be misdirected to believe the antagonist is bad and then everything is flipped around like with Boo Radley and Mr. Darcy. 
Antagonists can make a story memorable even when they are not even human, like Moby Dick or Christine. The one thing these antagonists all have in common is great character development.

Concentration on character development shouldn't stop with the protagonist and antagonist. Nobody willingly hangs around with boring people and nobody wants to read about characters with cornmeal personalities—not even the bit players. Everybody inside the covers of your book has to be interesting. Give each of them a distinct personality. If you have a character like a postman or waitress that appears only for a couple pages, don't slow down the story by describing their personality, show it. You need to do it with dress, movement, or dialogue. Show, don't tell, is more difficult with the brevity of a minor player, but you only need to spice the character enough to make him or her three dimensional.

A fictional work has a single writer with a single personality. If you populate your work with slight variations of yourself, you'll create a homogeneous universe that will bore people silly. A writer must suppress their own personality when developing characters so they are all different from each other. It's not enough that they look and talk different—they must think and act differently. They must be different people.

The fiction writer's personality will show up in the total work, but it's best if it's not directly reflected in the characters, especially the protagonist or antagonist. Have fun with these two. Make them unique from yourself and every other character in your work. This is especially true for the antagonist. 

A really good bad guy or gal gives a hero a reason to be heroic.


No comments:

Post a Comment