What are your favourite types of fictional characters? Mine include:-
1. The deserving hero/heroine. (This is one reason why I love fairytales, they’re full of these!).
2. Those who ensure justice is meted out to those meriting it but in the right way. Sam Vimes, Terry Pratchett’s wonderful creation in Discworld, is a great example of this kind of character.
3. Characters who develop over several books so you can see their progress (or lack of it). Vimes, again, is a classic example. Over a few books he goes from a drunk to a hero and there is much more to his development than that but I would happily urge you to check the Vimes novels out. (Good place to start is Men at Arms where Vimes really begins to get into his stride).
4. Characters who start off “wrong” but come to their senses and end up being useful to the world in which they’re set.
5. Wisecracking characters. I do have a very soft spot for witty creations. (My favourite cartoon character is Bugs Bunny for this specific reason. He says a lot more than “What’s up, Doc?”!).
6. The underdog who makes good through their own effort and some luck. (It is a story after all). Persistence pays here!
Why Getting Character Types Right Matters
Why does all of this matter? It all boils down to the purpose of stories. Stories should entertain but they can hold a mirror up to what we are like. They can show us human frailties. They can show us the great evil (and good) humanity is capable off. All of that will fail miserably if readers can’t get behind the characters and want to read on to find out what happens to them.
Stories are a great way of getting messages across and without preaching. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that fairytales so often consist of wrongs being righted and that it pays never to judge by appearances. There are a number of little old men/women scorned by other characters in such tales but who then turn out to be a powerful wizard/witch/fairy in disguise who punishes the character for their arrogance. (It’s the back story to The Beauty and the Beast to name just one).
Now you could just tell someone not to judge by appearances (and we do) but stories get that across so much better a lot of the time. Children particularly will work this out by what they read, yet another reason to encourage reading from a young age.
Stories are a great place to meet different characters, villainous as well as heroic, and there will be parallels with what we know in the “real” world that will make these tales relevant.
You also don’t want to come across a character that doesn’t seem real to you. You’d switch off. Confession time: I never really did get into the Frank Spencer or Basil Fawlty characters as both struck me as being “too much”. It was exactly why John Cleese was right to limit how many episodes of Fawlty Towers there would be and it is why the series is remembered with great fondness (albeit not by me!).
No matter what kind of character someone is or how fantastic their world is, they’ve still got to be realistically portrayed, otherwise a reader will stop reading. How is that realistic portrayal achieved?
Your character must have at least one trait a reader can identify with. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a good one. We understand Scrooge but don’t like his miserliness. I think it is easier to portray a character with attributes we have (or like to think we have).
Jane Austen famously said of her character, Emma, that “I will create a character only I will like”. Jane Austen failed here. Emma Woodhouse, along with Elizabeth Bennett, is one of Austen’s favourite creations. Why? Yes, Emma is self-willed, can’t see what is right under her nose at times, but has a kind heart. She does want her friend, Harriet, to be happy. That’s where the being able to identify with the character comes in. We all want the best for our friends, yes?
With films like Planet of the Apes, the setting may be alien but we all understand power struggles. Those apes who are sympathetic to humans clash with their own who don’t. As for Watership Down, the cast may be rabbits but the desire to find somewhere safe to live which isn’t threatened by anything or anyone is a fundamental need for us too.
The Lord of the Rings is a classic good -v- evil story and the wish to cheer on Frodo, the hobbit who nobody really expects to succeed in his mission to destroy Sauron’s ring of evil, ties in with our wish to support the underdog.
Is that a peculiarly British thing by the way? Any thoughts, do comment! I suppose it could be given the threats of invasion we’ve faced over the centuries – we see ourselves as the underdog – but wanting the underdog to succeed can’t just be something we wish for, can it?
So you’ve got your character but how to ensure they don’t come across as a cardboard cut-out or cliche of every other character of that type you’ve read before? Whatever flaws or virtues you give your characters, there must be something different about them that makes them stand out. Easier said than done? Yes, but getting the characters right is, for me, the real challenge of writing fiction.
A cardboard cut-out character will not work even if you “plonk” them in an unusual setting. The novelty wears off quickly.
There must be something about your creations that will appeal to your reader. In the case of villains, there should be a real wish on the part of your (future) readers to see them fail! It’s then a case of reading on to find how how they fail. The villain must also put your hero/heroine to the test and be a worthy opponent. Nobody likes a set-up fight! Where is the drama in that?
Character -v- Plot
You will gather from the above that in the character -v- plot debate, I come down firmly on the side of the character(s) being the most important element. To be honest, it is a false debate. Both are necessary but a properly fleshed out character will make all the difference as to whether the plot works or not. A “good” character will enhance and drive the plot. An awkward character can cause further problems for your hero/heroine to have to sort out and put more drama into the story.
A weak character in a good plot will weaken the plot and literally let the story down. A strong character in a weak plot will give the sense of the character not having enough to do. I’ve found it useful to know my characters inside out before deciding what threats I’m going to throw at them to deal with! By this point, I know how they are going to react and it isn’t always in a good way.
Weaknesses planned into the character can surface at key points in the story and scupper the character’s plans. The story is then found in whether the character can overcome those weaknesses and succeed in whatever it was they were hoping to achieve.
All stories have to feature conflict and points of change. Character A wants something (for good reasons). Obstacles or other characters or both get in their way. How does Character A overcome all that? Do they have to change something they do or are in order to win through or get the help of others who will help them then win through?
Non-fiction isn’t exempt here either. An article, including a blog like this one, has a “voice” (that of the narrator or blogger). Can readers identify with the voice and want to find out what they have to say/write? Knowing who your audience is and pitching to them accurately is a prerequisite for fiction and non-fiction writers alike.
So who are your favourite characters and why? When you’ve read a story you really enjoyed, what was it you liked best? I would be surprised if it wasn’t down to the way the author created their characters.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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