Character, character, character


Silk’s Post #110 — In real estate, famously, the three most important things are location, location, location. In writing, it’s character, character, character. At least, according to me.

Let me convince you.

But first: a spoiler alert.

I’m about to riff off Joe’s last post, “Writing rules?”, in which he discusses how successfully a great book (and now movie) – Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn – can break a bunch of them and make you forget there were supposed to be rules at all. I will be submitting Gone Girl as Exhibit A in my character, character, character argument. And I may give away a few of Flynn’s dirty little secrets.

gone-girlGone Girl is a book-length collision of characters. A suspenseful, horrifying, grotesque dance of truth and lies, love and hate, clarity and delusion, dominance and submission. It brings out the prurient interest of the reader at a deep and unwholesome level, like a kind of intellectual porn. It is spectacular.

The pas de deux at the heart of the book is a wild tango: the externally ordinary but internally twisted marriage between Nick and Amy, two of the most compelling characters in modern American literature.

As Joe mentioned (and this is not giving much away to the insightful reader, who will recognize it very quickly), both Nick and Amy are unreliable narrators of their own stories. Both are point-of-view characters. Both play the dual roles protagonist and antagonist. Both are heroes. Both are anti-heroes. Both are villains. In fact, it’s a crowded marquis when you add up all the credits for these two characters alone.

Gone Girl is, in short, the perfect case study of how all stories are started by characters, are driven forward by characters, and are brought to a resolution by characters. Pretty strong blanket statement, eh? Any arguments against? I’m sure there are.

What about all those other story elements? Concept, for example. Doesn’t a story really begin there, ignited by the classic “disturbance to normal life”? Well, yes. But it’s the characters’ response to that disturbance that begins the story itself. Disturb away to your heart’s content, but if nobody reacts there is no story.

In storytelling, the old conundrum of whether a tree falling in the forest makes a sound if nobody is there to hear it is finally resolved. Nope. No sound. At least not one that can be written about.

And, by the way, writers come up with “concepts”. It’s part of the creative process. Readers, however, don’t read “concepts”. They read stories.

Okay, but how about theme? Isn’t that really the core of many stories? In a theme-driven story, the characters are essentially actors employed to deliver the key message. Their actions and feelings and fates illustrate ideas or forces that are deeper, bigger, more universal than the consequences of their own small lives. I mean, think saga here. Think good vs. evil.

But hold on. Isn’t the real appeal of this type of book the human drama of characters caught up in a thematic story world full of moral dilemmas and conflicts between things like sacrifice vs. comfort, duty vs. love, society vs. the individual? What meaning or resonance would any literary theme have without the personal, human dimension created by characters of free will?

And let’s also clear up that old “law” that conveniently explains the division that’s supposed to exist between “character-driven” novels (often described as literary fiction) and “plot-driven” novels (presumed to be commercial fiction). Apparently, in these “character driven” stories, nothing actually happens. Characters just lie around, inert, thinking thoughts. In contrast, “plot driven” story characters are swept along in a river of action, constantly busy doing whatever their author wants them to, like tin soldiers moved around a pretend battleground by an eight-year-old general.

Maybe once upon a time, this seemed like a good way to categorize books. Someone must have thought it made sense, because we’ve all heard this “character driven” vs. “plot driven” mantra for years (to me it always sounded like code for hardcover vs. pulp). But I’m not buying it anymore.

I’m prepared to go out on a limb and declare that a story, at its heart, is always about people doing stuff, simple as that. Character + action. And in the old chicken-and-egg riddle, I further declare that the character chicken came before the action egg. Hell, I like to live dangerously.

Think about it. Whether it’s literary fiction, paranormal, action story, romance, sci fi, horror, historical, humour, mystery, suspense, thriller, YA, steampunk, or urban post-apocalyptic teen vampire fantasy, every story must be driven forward by the actions of characters. And those actions are driven by the (simple or complex) feelings, needs, motivations and beliefs of those characters – which is what makes the actions interesting and compelling. Character, character, character! I can’t say it enough.

I think we “emerging writers” get tripped up by this very simple principle sometimes. We take it to heart that character is important, so we often start by engineering a protagonist by the Frankenstein method. We stitch together a bunch of humanoid ingredients – gender, age, looks, strengths, weaknesses, clothes, hobbies, likes, dislikes, hair and eye colour, personality – tack on a backstory, and … voila! Our creature is ready to drop into a plot!

Not so fast. Here are just are two of the potential problems still lurking.

The first problem is that we have created, essentially, a mannequin. It still needs to be brought to life (remember the lightning storm in Mary Shelley’s brilliant Frankenstein?). Our mannequin protagonist isn’t a character until he actually starts doing (and feeling) something. Instead, we often spend a lot of pages introducing our character to readers passively, through description and backstory.

We want them to understand who this character is, deep down inside. What makes him tick. We want them to love our proud creation. Or at least to relate to him. We often don’t even realize we’re doing this – standing next to our protagonist like a proud parent telling the reader all about him instead of letting him show them his stuff. But for me, as a reader, meeting a new protagonist in the early pages of a book often feels like an enforced tour of Grandma’s baby picture album. I suspect these are the pages most agents and editors chop without mercy.

(Have you had the experience, as I have, of speed dating an agent at a writers’ conference and being told to start your story on page 6 or 10? Why? Because they know what readers actually want. They want to get to know the character through his actions.)

The second problem (just skip this paragraph if you’ve never, ever done this) is that we tend to mould our protagonist in our own image. Writers are always sneakily writing about themselves – or the selves they’d really like to be (or perhaps are afraid they might become). How can I say this, you might protest, when your protagonist is totally different from you? Different age, looks, circumstances, maybe even gender! Okay, then, why do so many protagonists come off as essentially good guys with some obvious (but mostly endearing) “faults” pasted on, often faults that don’t go deeper than quirks? My suspicion is it’s because we identify so strongly with them. They’re our stand-ins. Their popularity is our popularity. We don’t want them to piss anyone off, and that can lead to a bland protagonist.

So now, let’s go back to Gone Girl. Want to know how to create unforgettable characters? Read this book. It’s an extreme example because Gillian Flynn gets us addicted to her unreliable (and ultimately unlikeable) characters to the extent that we have to find out what they’ll do next, even though it makes us uncomfortable. Despite the fact that they’re really quite fucked up, we want to understand them. And even while they make us cringe, we don’t hate them.

And here’s the brilliance of this psychological thriller: we keep seeing flashes of our secret selves in them, hating to admit it. They become a kind of Rorschach test for the reader. We don’t just want to find out what happens to them in the end. We need to know.

The punchline of my thesis: the only ones who can entice, motivate, even force readers to turn the page in your book are your characters. They are your stars, sometimes temperamental and difficult to direct. But if you can dig down and get a powerful performance out of them, they’ll put you on the bestseller lists.

2 thoughts on “Character, character, character

  1. I feel like I owe you tuition. I hope you are a state school, and not Ivy League.
    I’ve always thought my stories were fundamentally plot driven (mythical settings for a modern political/social allegory) with characters that I crafted just to move the story. I even saw Gone Girl in that way: an ingenious development of expectations that were eroded at their apogee, for a new series of expectations that suffered the same fate: In other words, plot driven, narration driven. I’ve thought that way for years, maybe because my storytelling in court was case driven and designed to produce an immediate and specific reaction, rather then move or transport a reader in a more profound way. My instincts, or rather, my reflexes, are still that way, but you’ve changed something in me with this post. I’ve copied some of it directly into my notes for the story I’m working on (with credit to you, even in my notes), and I also copied “10 Most Important Things” directly into my notes as well. The most important thing is to move readers emotionally, and the only way to do that is to get them to feel what your character is feeling. Perhaps I failed to see that for years because we’re trained to see hidden issues and use them to our advantage before others see them and get a chance to prepare themselves. In any event, I was changed about a quarter of the way into this post, and I need to alter (or should i say rehabilitate) my reflexes. And I owe you. Thanks.

    • Wow, thanks Jerry. You know, I never blog about writing problems I’m not guilty of and trying to correct. It’s like a conversation with myself. I think it’s one thing to hear/read advice from experts, another to experience your own little epiphany, and that’s what I try to bring to the page. Of course, knowing what to do and what not to do does’t necessarily make it easier to actually DO it (hence the reliably permanent need for writing books). Anyway, I’m really happy you’re getting something out of my meanderings. Good luck at the keyboard!

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