Image Credit: Images created in Book Brush using Pixabay photos.
It is the irony of all fiction writing that, while everyone knows the stories are made up, people want characters they can believe.
These characters must be true to life so a story writer’s job is to make their characters seem real enough that, if the situation could happen in reality, these would be the characters who would also exist in reality.
A reader needs to root for the characters, whether it is to hope the characters win through or, in the case of most villains, wanting to read on and see how they fail miserably. It is fun to “boo” a “good” villain after all. The legacy of pantomime casts many a shadow!
There is also an underlying wish on the part of most of us to see justice done overall and we want instinctively for stories to end the “right” way. Again, ironically, for some stories the “right” ending isn’t necessarily a happy one but it does have to be appropriate to the character and the situation the writer has put them in.
Real characters have meaning then and sometimes their names can be given to attributes. For example, mention Scrooge and most will think miser. Yet the man changed! (I don’t know if that says more about us that we remember the bad side to Scrooge better than the good one). But we know deep down characters represent humanity in all of its goodness, its evil, its sense of humour and so on. Our stories need to reflect that otherwise they won’t seem true enough to us.
What’s My Motivation In This?
That question has been used to send up “luvviedom” in acting but it is a good question for all fiction writers to ask of their characters. Just why are you writing about the characters you’ve chosen? What is special about them? What are their motives for overcoming the obstacles the writer puts in their way? How driven are your characters?
Motivation drives us all so it must drive our characters too. Fiction reflects aspects of life. One of the great appeals of stories is being able to read what a character does and deciding for ourselves whether that character made the right choices or not. Given their circumstances and motivations, we can ask ourselves whether we would have acted in the same way.
If a character is, for example, poor, they’ve got a powerful motive to earn money in some way because they’ve got to make ends meet. The writer doesn’t need to spell that out – it is obvious. A rich character seeking to earn money does need their motivation clarified. Are they just greedy for money? Have they got expenses nobody else knows about and they need to earn as much as they can (for example in meeting care costs for someone they love)? But here a writer would need to show the motivation.
Readers have got to understand what drives a character to be able to root for them at all. If you don’t care about the character, why read the story?
We read to find out what happens. Something has to happen. A character has to respond to that something and motivation will be what drives them to succeed. Sometimes it is a matter of life or death but it doesn’t have to be. A character can be kind to animals, say, because they’ve come from a background where that didn’t happen and they loathed it. Readers will understand that and have empathy for your character.
Fantasy and Other Strange Worlds
Despite strange settings, the characters here still need to behave in ways we understand given their circumstances. Why should the motives of love, justice, revenge etc just be confined to humanity? What makes a difference here would be the different/extra skills your fantastical characters could have here. How do they use these things? Do they abuse their powers? We can understand the idea of abuse of power given it happens all too frequently here.
I often write what I call fairytales with bite. These are often humorous flash fiction pieces but in my stories I still have my characters act in ways readers would understand. My fairy godmother character getting home weary after a hard day performing magic is someone readers will identify with because most of us know what it is like to be weary like that. Okay, our kind of work is different but it is the things we have in common with characters that matters here.
Realistic characters then have motives we understand. Their attitudes and actions will spring from that and we should be able to understand those too. In the case of villains, we need to see where they come from though we’ll disagree with the conclusion they’ve reached (and therefore the actions they take in the story).
In the case of heroes/heroines, they shouldn’t be too perfect. Nobody will identify with that. But a hero/heroine who makes mistakes, learns from them, goes on to do well – well, we’ll all identify with that. And stories like that can be encouraging to us. Mistakes don’t necessarily have to be the end of everything is the positive message here. It is how we/the character responds to those mistakes that matter.
I’ve never liked goody two shoes characters. I don’t find them inspiring. Quite the opposite in fact.
Recognising Human Fallibility and Capabilities
In a sense, all fiction writers do this and exploit it. We know people can be greedy for money, say, and so are prepared to steal to get money. So we can write that into a story. Equally, and more positively, we can recognise those who overcome dodgy pasts and go on to better things through their own efforts. That we applaud in life, so we can applaud it in fiction too.
By basing our characters on what we know humans are capable of, we are far more likely to produce characters readers will want to read about. And can writers exploit/exaggerate these things to produce fantastical creatures? Oh yes. The horror genre plays on human fears and exploits those to produce monsters etc. The crime genre exploits the general desire to see justice done (and the fact we know so often it doesn’t happen in life so we definitely want it to play out in the stories we read). As I mentioned last week, humans like to laugh too so humorous stories exploit that.
We read books to escape but we also need characters we can identify with, failings and all. I love books of a wide range of genres with an ending that is reasonably upbeat. When I want tragedy I watch something like Hamlet but I know I want to see tragedy so I go for a story/play that delivers on what I want to experience.
What I want to experience in all my reading/watching plays etc is to have a good story peopled by characters I can root for and to have an appropriate ending for that story. I want to come away feeling satisfied with the story “performance” so to speak. For that, I need realistically portrayed characters, no matter how fantastical they themselves and their setting might be.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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