THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT ELEMENT TO EVERY CHARACTER

Let’s talk briefly about characters. And that’s a subject it’s hard for me to talk briefly about. But some things I’ve been reading recently, including agent and Fantasy Author’s Handbook interviewee Donald Maass’s controversial post at Writer Unboxed, have got me thinking about a single element of good characters.

In that post on what he sees as the new class system for authors, Maass described one of the elements that tends to push authors into the lowest tier of authors: “Characters are not motivated from within, for the most part, but instead are pushed into action by external plot circumstances.”

To me, that is a serious complaint. And Donald Maass is hardly the first to notice that. Lester Dent, in his pulp “formula,” which I’ve written about here, ended the whole thing with this question: “Did God kill the villain? Or the hero?” And he isn’t asking that because he thinks that deus ex machina is a decent alternative. What he’s saying, clearly, is the hero has to kill the villain. Now, in Dent’s case, I think he meant that literally, but by all means feel free to replace the word kill with anything else that brings a satisfying resolution to your story: redeems, forgives, exiles, etc.

You may be able to think of a character who, at least on the surface, would rather not be there. Tolkien’s reluctant hobbit heroes, for instance. But though some characters maybe would rather stay home with a good pipe and a snack once that story starts there are significant internal drives that not only keep them in the story but see to it that without them, there would be no story at all.

The presence of active rather than passive characters is easy enough to identify in other people’s writing, but can be tough to identify in your own. One way to at least try to keep yourself on track is to literally ask that question: “Did God kill the villain? Or the hero?” Actually ask, aloud if possible, this question of every scene. Did the hero and/or the villain and/or any and every other character in that scene serve an active function in that scene? No? Then cut the son of a bitch. You don’t need him (or her, or it), and neither does your reader.

An alternative to simply giving that character the axe, of course, is to think of a suitable and compelling answer to that question and making it apparent in your writing.

Stories are about people, even if that “person” is an elf, a martian, or an intergalactic sponge puppy. And people who allow themselves to be dragged through events aren’t terribly interesting, even if the events themselves are really exciting and dangerous. This is why detectives who may start a mystery simply being assigned to the case as the homicide detective on duty, tend to find that this seemingly random victim was actually his secret mistress, or was murdered in a way that’s identical to the detective’s only unsolved case—after twenty years, the Fried Tilapia Killer is back, and this time, it’s personal!

You know what I mean . . . “I am your father, Luke.” or “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

If at any time you find yourself wandering, digressing, or explaining, STOP! No story requires any of that, and your readers will start to lose interest, or, what may be worse, struggle to figure out why all of a sudden we care about this guy’s back story. If it’s there at all it must be important later on, so your reader will make a mental note of it. And those mental notes aren’t necessarily conscious. The overwhelming majority of fiction readers aren’t keeping notes—literally—while reading a novel, but the act of reading requires certain things to be slotted into memory, and the more things that are slotted into memory that don’t ultimately pay off, that were just there for “color,” will leave your readers feeling that something is missing. And most of them may not ever be able to specifically identify things like, “Whatever happened to that guy Galen?” “Didn’t the queen have another daughter? Where’s she in all this?” Instead, they’ll simply feel, on a subconscious level, that something is missing, something is left hanging, and most of them will fall back on the worst thing you ever want to hear from a reader: “I don’t know why, I just didn’t like it.”

Look, some people are going to hate you. Trust me. But for God’s sake, and your career’s, if they’re going to hate you, they should hate you for a reason, not just because you’ve gotten sloppy with characters.

 

—Philip Athans

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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One Response to THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT ELEMENT TO EVERY CHARACTER

  1. epheros says:

    I think this is perfectly valid advice, and it makes absolute sense, but there is a certain aspect of reactionary heroism that definitely has it’s place. For many readers, reading is a simple act of escape, and whatever their reasons, life in the book is more exciting than in real life. Completely understandable, but the stories that might entrance certain readers is a passive hero that is thrust into the limelight, who then has to become active

    **That concept may very well be the key to your whole post, but I’ve read other writer advice describing reactionary heroes as lazier writing. Making them active agents in the story is point of those blog posts.

    You mentioned the hobbits, a reactionary character drawn into an environment outside the norm and faces challenges the whole way. The first story that came to my mind is the movie ‘Nick of Time’. In this movie, Johnny Depp plays a widowed accountant whose daughter is taken at Union Station and is used to as leverage to force Depp’s character to kill a politician. The whole movie is reactionary and Depp has no special training (like badass special ops/Navy SEAL or anything, just an accountant who must suddenly re-evaluate his life and how he can save his daughter while not murdering someone with the only skills and knowledge he’s ever acquired. It’s only until the end that Depp’s character becomes an active agent of the story. Everything is happening to him and he is forced to operate only within the confines of the metaphysical box the kidnappers have placed him in.

    These stories tend to resonate only because it puts the reader into the same position as the protagonist and allows them to fantasize that they may be smart enough or skilled enough or clever enough to find a way out as a regular person. Don’t get me wrong, readers do enjoy the ‘down on his luck bartender who happened to be a Green Beret during the war’ story but there isn’t any empathetic element there other than characterization because most everyone doesn’t know how to build improvised weapons, or know deadly Bourne-style martial arts, or is trained to perform crazy stunts.

    After all that explanation, it still boils down to the idea that your protagonist should arrive at a point in the story where they become THE active agent of the resolution. I just wanted to different the story device from the story itself – a character can be passive or reactionary but MUST become the active agent to resolve the plot, the story hinges on the character setting up the climax.

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