Tag Archives: character

"I have a soft spot for cripples, bastards, and broken things."

The “Good Guy”

You’re all pretty familiar with the term protagonist, or at least you’ve heard the word tossed around in conversations involving books or movies, or in your English classes. If not, here it is, plain and simple: The protagonist is the main character, usually a proponent of good, around whom the story revolves.

Protagonists are not always a person, or even one person. They could be an idea, a movement, an event. More often than not, they are synonymous with the hero, so it makes them easy to spot. But sometimes they aren’t, and the hero is some other character that merely saves the day and paves the way for the protagonist to have their revelation.

If you’re having trouble identifying a protagonist, just look for the character that gives the story purpose, drive, and meaning. They are the vehicle for the themes interwoven throughout the narrative.

Enter HERO
Now, it’s a pretty simple task to right a story about a hero on a quest to save the world from certain destruction. This hero is faultPrince Charming Once Upon A Timeless. He’s handsome (or she’s rapturously beautiful). All the words that issue from their mouth are as empowering as battle commands given by a seasoned general, or they’re as soft and reassuring as a mother’s hug. What’s more, they overcome the antagonist, thwart the villain’s plans, and always save the day so the happy ending can ensue. It’s a classic tale of chivalry (or feminism), a clash against fate, overcoming all obstacles, the fairy tale ending, it’s . . . it’s boring is what it is.

People are sick of color by numbers stories filled with those kinds of flat characters—static and unchanging.

So, how do we avoid the clichés and stereotypes?
Let’s dumb ‘em down, you think. Maybe if the archetypal hero has been overdone, it’ll be better to write a character that’s as boring as a class on Excel, or worse . . . typing with Mavis Beacon.

Jim’s just an ordinary guy who works in a cubical; he goes home to his cat, Lucy, eats some dinner, brushes his teeth, and goes to bed. The only climax in a story like that is when Jim is late for work the next morning because Lucy accidentally unplugged his cell charger during the night and his phone died. Everything turns out okay though, because when he gets to work, his boss isn’t even there yet. That was a grueling scenario just to write about. If your story sounds like this, here’s some advice: CTRL + A, then tap delete. Watering down your main character is just as bad as injecting them with steroids.

How do you create an interesting main character, then?
Michael Goldenberg, a playwright who has worked on various big name projects, which include Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, The Green Lantern, and Peter Pan, describes very eloquently the protagonist’s raison d’être.

“The protagonist is the character that suffers
the most.”

So there you have it. Make sure you inflict as much misery and depression on your main character as possible and you’ll have a wonderful story . . .

*snickers* The word suffer doesn’t always mean something negative. Most simply, it means to experience or be subjected to. So, the character whom most of events of a story are affecting would be the protagonist.

Suffering
That is not to say that this character will not suffer pain and suffering, but because of the basic struggles: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Himself, Man vs. Society, and Man vs. Nature, all or at least some of these things are going to imbue your character with life and purpose. A character, who is normal and plain and who’s daily routine is just as menial and mundane, can become a point of intrigue when you weather them with conflict.

Think about how you handle problems, how your friends react in certain situations, your parents even; and you’ll find it a lot easier to define your character (both protagonists and antagonists alike).

Your protagonist should be just as flawed as you are.
That doesn’t mean you’re evil, or that your good guy is a bad guy, but it does mean that they make mistakes. They don’t always say the right thing, do the right thing; adhere to a set of morals. In fact, they may be arrogant and impulsive—like Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. You’ll find these types of protagonists easier to relate to. By the same token, you as the viewer may undergo a similar process of enlightenment as the protagonist if they are relative to you.

What’s this look like?
Well, remember Jim the office worker? He’s actually an identical twin. While Jim pushes papers behind a desk, his brother, Josh, is a traveling photographer for National Geographic. Now that we’ve created an interesting dynamic. Let’s push it a little father.

Internally, Jim has been harboring some pretty intense feelings of jealously toward his brother for years; ever since they were children, really. He’s sick of him. When Josh comes home, all he does is gloat about his victories and his experiences, the exotic places he’s visited. His parents continually dote praise on him, which doesn’t help matters.

During one of their family reunions, Jim and Josh get into a heated debate. Jim says some really horrible things. It ends with both brothers storming out angrily.  On the drive home, Jim thinks, I wish he were dead. He resolves to avoid Josh from that point on. And years pass without a single word exchanged between the brothers.

One day, Jim finds out that Josh has taken his own life. No one has any idea why. Turns out, from the outside he had everything going for him: money, a good job, endless beauties wanting to be with him, but what Jim didn’t know was that his brother felt just as empty and alone on the inside as he did. Josh only became a photographer because it was their father’s trade, and he had pushed him into the field. He’d never gotten to follow his own dreams of becoming a musician, because Dad always said, “The only real art is taking out the noise,” as in a good photograph. Whereas, music was all about adding noise to life. Josh never told Jim how he felt, but the words in his goodbye letter read, “I always admired you.” But what was it that his brother admired? He had a dead-end career. He used to love writing when he was younger; used to do it all the time and it made him happy. He didn’t know what happened to that passion.

From that moment on, Jim decides to change his life around and find some purpose to live for. He quits his boring job, he packs up his cat, and he moves to a completely different city where he decides to pursue his love for writing.

At the end of the story, we see Jim write the final words of his first draft. The scene ends with Jim tapping the period key and letting out a gratified sigh.

The Shape of ThingsThe Road end
The protagonists you cling to as an audience/reader are the ones that end up in a different place than when they started. It’s not always miles apart as in Jim’s case, but it is a marked change that the viewer should be able to take note of, a step in some direction, and it should bring some sense of closure, however minute. Not all the loose ends need to be tied up, but your main character should have reached a point where we can safely assume their future, and we can accept/understand their past.

F is for friends that do stuff together!

Crafting Characters You Give A Flying Frak About

Now there’s the challenge. How do you write a story with not just a great plot, but convincing, relevant, organic, palpable characters that seem just as real as any movie character on the big screen, or even the girl that sits next to you in class . . . you know, the really cute one with the interesting scar above her right eye?

It’s all about the little things, not just the obvious traits. So, the technique here is a lot like creating believable dialogue. If you want to make it easier on yourself, just observe people around you for bit; that’s a good start. Take note of not just their appearance, but also their personality quirks, their compulsions, their tics. Does Jim have a slight stutter, or does Sarah constantly bite her bottom lip when she’s about to tell a lie? Pride issues, timidity, aggressive tendencies . . . these are all things that make a character so much more than just a dark scary man wearing a flowing black cloak, cackling maniacally—someone who is clearly evil. If there’s anything the world needs less of, it’s flat characters . . . and maybe the Kardashians.

What makes a flat character, you ask? Well, any character who lacks development and doesn’t need it (because they’re not worth it); a character that is either an archetype of good, evil, or some other emotional value.  They usually take the form of the mustache-twirling villain or the hero on an epic quest that knows exactly what to do and say no matter what the situation. No one is that cut and dry in real life, and no one should be in your stories either; unless it’s satire, then by all means go ahead. It could be humorous.

Characters, Like Onions (lots of layers)
A good example of a character with some real, well . . . character, would be Professor Snape from Harry Potter. At first, you think he’s just going to be another one of Harry’s numerous antagonists throughout the series. After all, from their first meeting, there is nothing to him. He’s just that one teacher who seems to have an innate hatred for Harry.

As the story unfolds, you learn that what first appeared as blatant dislike is actually a front to protect Harry, that Snape used to be in love with Harry’s late mother and as a sort of debt to her memory, he has vowed to go so far as to defame himself and pretend to ally himself with the Dark Lord only to give Harry the chance to defeat him. It’s very complicated, but the fact is, the “bad guy” is not a bad guy at all, but rather an unfriendly good guy who is motivated by love. That sort of character demands some measure of respect and even sympathy.

If you’re ever in doubt of whether your characters are multidimensional, ask yourself this simple question: Can you love and hate them at the same time? Can you see part of yourself, however small, in them? If yes, then congrats! You’ve created a wonderful character for your story. Taking the time to be subjective and consider these things could be the difference between a character your audience gets attached to and one of the out-of-focus extras walking around in the background of a scene.

Attention Hogs
Your character should be compelling enough that even though there may be a zombie virus outbreak in the background, and the crowd is panicking—in short, lots of distractions—your character is the only thing the audience truly cares about. And how that character reacts in any given situation will only add to everything we know about them. In most cases, actions speak louder than words. Be mindful of your dialogue, but be deliberate with your actions.

For instance, don’t just throw a sex scene in a story because you feel like it’s obligatory, or that it will make your characters seem more real . . . ahem, ahem Game of Thrones. It adds nothing to your character (except for some extra texture *smirks*). However, the way a character shies away from touch could say volumes about their past experiences, most likely dark ones, which the viewer may never fully come to know (and they don’t need to know; that’s the beauty of good dialogue coupled with competent acting). What’s inferred by a simple action—like when a coworker innocently sneaks up behind Sarah the Waitress at Fridays, and taps her on the shoulder, and she jerks away violently—that’s the development. We can only assume that she does not like being touched, and for good reasons. Sometimes it’s better that we don’t know why, but can assume.  The point is, by making Sarah the Waitress react in this manner, she has now become so many shades deeper as a character.

So Say We All
One more character, a personal favorite of mine, is Admiral Adama from the show Battlestar Galactica . . . What? Don’t Laugh. Even people that are not interested in science fiction can find things (and plenty of them) to take away from this spectacular space drama. The character development is some of the best I’ve ever seen, and as for the “Old Man” as he’s called on the show, he’s one of the best.

The series opens up with the seasoned commander about to give a speech during the decommissioning ceremony of the spaceship he’s commanded for the last couple decades, the famed relic-of-a-starship, Battlestar Galactica. From the start, it’s obvious that the commander cares not for ceremonies and press hubbub; he just wants to retire in peace and get the media crews off his ship.

The future president of the colonies, Laura Roslin, is also present for the proceedings. She makes a comment that it would make things easier for people to learn the lay of the ship if everything was networked. Adama vehemently refuses, saying he “[doesn't] care . . . It’s an integrated computer network and [he] won’t have it on this ship.” It becomes exceedingly clear that Adama is a relic from the past himself, and his simple, functional ship, needs nothing more than a reliable crew, good guns, and a sturdy hull to operate. Very old-fashioned. We love this. It’s a precaution, which saves their lives later on in the series.

Before the ceremony, there’s another noteworthy scene that takes place in the captain’s quarters between Adama and his executive officer, Saul Tigh.

Here is an excerpt of their discourse:

ADAMA

Been drinking a lot lately.

TIGH

Maybe.

ADAMA

This have anything to do with...

TIGH

My wife? Why, just because she’s sleeping with half the population of Geminon while I’m away. Nah, doesn’t have anything to do with her.

Adama sips his coffee for a beat.

ADAMA

Well, I doubt Starbuck’s gonna ask for a court either. Lucky for you, considering your record.

TIGH

Doesn’t matter. I’m getting out anyway.

ADAMA

There a chance you’ll change your mind? The Fleet needs men like you, Saul.

TIGH

Like hell. You’re the only sonuvabitch in the whole fleet dumb enough to want me as XO.

ADAMA

(wry)

Now you see why they’re putting me out to pasture.

TIGH

I did wonder.

The two old friends share a brief smile, then Adama takes a deep breath.

ADAMA

All right. Ceremony’s at fourteen hundred. Be there on time, in a fresh uniform and clean-shaven.

TIGH

Yes, sir.

Adama nods, the meeting over. Tigh heads for the door, then pauses.

TIGH

(cont’d)

Has Lee reported aboard yet?

Adama doesn’t answer for a long moment.

ADAMA

Three hours ago.

TIGH

Maybe you should...

ADAMA

He’ll contact me when he’s ready.

And so, from this brief exchange we’ve established a couple of things that will stick with us throughout the course of the series: An age-old friendship between the two men, good friends that know and love each other, and aren’t afraid to call each other out; the smile they share hits home this idea perfectly; age is insinuated by their casual attitude in regard to their duties, and with that, experience; and respect, both in friendship and formally.

What’s more, Tigh goes on to ask Adama about his estranged son, Lee. Just by the pause, the way he answers plainly, and Tigh’s friendly chide that he should probably try to make amends with his son; the way Adama cuts him off as if to say, “I don’t need to be told what to do, it hurts, but this is just how it is,” there’s a whole flurry of emotions and character communicated. We understand that there is pain in his life, but we also understand that somewhere in time beforehand, he’s done his part in confronting it. He can’t do anymore. And we see him as a man who can accept the things he can’t change, including his broken relationship with his son. Additionally, we see that he is wise and patient enough to allow Lee to make the next move in reconciling their issues. Wow! What a character, and that’s all established within a few sentences and during the first half an hour of the show. With people like this, there’s so much to look forward to.

It’s not hard to hack it, but it does take some extra thought. Take time crafting characters. You’re creating life, in a sense.