Thursday, February 23, 2012

Characters and Character Development in Fiction

I’m going to take a full section for your character development. A key to a character-driven (not a plot-driven) book are the characters. First, I want to say something important. Even a great plot-driven book has well-developed characters. Plot-driven books that fail to develop characters and go on the simple merit of the action will fail to become classics.

Let’s look to film to show the difference. Why does a mega blockbuster film like Avatar earn critical praise while a popcorn film like Transformers does not? It’s all about a well-developed story that contains characters we love to love. Avatar has a real story with well-developed characters so much so I remember the star character’s name, Jake Sully. Transformers has some gorgeous stars for sure, how many of you remember the hero’s name? I don’t remember a single character’s name. Think of classic literature and the characters you probably know their names. You may not even remember the name of the book, but you remember the character’s names. Who can’t forget classic and unforgettable literary legends like Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice or Jo in Little Women?

Let’s look at the elements of developing characters and different roles in the story:

Hero or heroine – All books have heroes or heroines aka the character we root for and like and invest in. The hero is typically the “cowboy in the white hat” or good guy or is the person the story is about. The plot should center on the hero or heroine.

Antihero – In fiction the antihero is generally considered to be a protagonist whose character, in some regards, is conspicuously contradictory to the archetypal hero. In some cases, the antihero is the antithesis to the hero. Some people believe the antihero could be classified as the antagonist or villain. An antihero, however, is not a strict villain and typically elicits sympathy or admiration. The antihero is sometimes the character you love to hate and love at the same time.

Protagonist – The leading character. The leading character doesn’t have to be purely heroic. In fact, flawed characters are far more interesting than a character who is simply good or bad. Flawed characters are intriguing and layered in a multiplicity of motivations, both good and bad. The truth is: no one is purely good or bad. Most truly interesting characters are often flawed.

Villain – The purely evil, sociopathic villain can border on a cartoon character. You do not want to paint a black character with no heart or soul or motivation for his or her evil nature. A great villain is the one that is fully fleshed out, relatable and understandable. A one-dimensional villain is actually quite boring. 

Flawed Characters – This kind of character merits exploration. A great villain that leans more toward the antihero, if well written, will be layered in complexity and flaws. If you create relatable character flaws, you will draw in the audience and gain empathy. A great, flawed person who does bad things elicits sympathy. Drawing a villain with shades of good makes it hard for the audience to want him or her to get his or her comeuppance. In fact, the audience will secretly want the flawed, empathic villain to prevail. In my book, California Girl Chronicles, Brea Harper is essentially a good character with flaws. She’s relatable in her self-awareness of her flaws. She admits she knows she’s done the wrong thing. In her admittance of what is essentially her common humanity where we are not perfect, she becomes relatable. Astute reviewers and readers caught onto the book not as a work of contemporary romance but as a great character study, which is the true heart of the story. If all you see is a person who is having multiple relationships, you’ve missed the point.

Character Foils – In your supporting cast, you should build character foils. A character foil is another character who serves as a contrast to another perhaps more primary character, so as to point out specific traits of the primary character. You can do all sorts of interesting things with character foils. I’ll give you another example from California Girl Chronicles. In book two, we have two male characters, Kale and Ryan, and both are from Hollywood money. Kale uses the money to build his production money. Ryan becomes a playboy ner’er-do-well. Ryan is Kale’s foil. He contrasts Kale’s character. Kale is conservative and loving and stable. Ryan is flighty, fun-loving and unstable. A third and more fun foil, both are the heroine’s foils. In her attraction to each character, each one reflects something about her. She has a stable side and loving side and she has a fun-loving, flighty nature too.

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