The rather extraneous title of today’s post serves to illustrate the feeling all writers get when their characters start running away from them in new and often unwanted directions. It sounds clichéd, but it really is true: your characters will come to have a life of their own. Hopefully this post will help you corral yours into some semblance of order.
The first rule that I work by when dealing with my characters is: Plot is character, and character is plot. The two are inseparable, and so they should be. Do not try to prise them apart. They are the Siamese twins of the writing world. Try to have one without the other and your story will fall flat on its face.
Think about where plot comes from: it comes from what your characters do, how they behave, how they react to any given situation. This will drive the twists and turns of the story, and dictate where your characters go and what they get up to.
Think about where character comes from: it comes from the outward effect of circumstances. Your characters should change over the course of the story. Ideally the main character should undergo some sort of paradigm-shift from one point of view to another. In order to do this, clearly, he or she must have a point of view to begin with.
Thus: plot=character and character=plot.
Here is a trap I fell into when writing my first book: I came up with a great concept, a brilliant story, an amazing sequence of events that would have befitted the grandest of multiplex cinemas on Bank Holiday weekend.
I started writing. I was concentrating so much on the intricacies of my plotting that I didn’t bother with my characters. What happened? I finished writing, read it over, and found that my story was dull. There was nothing to relate to. It was all shiny spectacle with no substance (as befitting the grandest of multiplex cinemas on Bank Holiday weekend).
Don’t do what I did. Don’t focus so much on your story that you forget the people in it. Spend at least as much time developing your characters as you do your plot, and do them both at the me time, because they do feed into each other.
So, you ask, how should I go about developing my characters? Well, I answer, by remembering the difference between character and characterisation.
Characterisation: The set of features that combine to make up a human being. This could be their likes and dislikes, the colour of their hair, their personal history, what school they went to, whether they are religious or not, and a whole host of other surface features.
Character: Who a person is. Their essential drive. Their motivation. Why they do what they do.
Characterisation is fun; character is essential.
Let’s take Banac as an example. I deliberately leave details on my characters vague, because it’s more fun for the reader to impose their own image on to a character’s behaviours.
Physical description: short, stocky, brown skin, dark curly hair. (I think that’s about all you get, or really need, over the course of the book. No-one wants three paragraphs of intimate detail on the first page. It’s boring.)
Age: About twelve or thirteen. (Ish. It would be closer to the truth to say that Banac is slightly older than the average child reader, and Balor slightly younger.)
Personality: Reckless, adventurous, imaginative, quick temper, protective of his brother but annoyed with him at the same time.
That’s about it for characterisation. These are all ‘whats’. They are interesting, but ultimately they don’t matter much as far as the plot is concerned. The part of Banac’s character that is tied to the plot is the ‘why’.
Character: Banac is bored with village life. He loves stories and wants to escape into them, but he lacks the courage or drive to take the first step towards his ‘ideal’ of what an adventure is — the adventure represented by the idea of Padascel. He feels shackled by his implied responsibility towards his brother, Balor, who he is constantly having to take care of, but at the same time he feels conflicted through the natural love he has for Balor.
This is just a quick sketch, but it shows us how character affects personality. Let’s just go back over some aspects of Banac’s personality:
Reckless: Why is Banac reckless? Because he is over-compensating for the boredom he feels in the village, and showing off to Balor who is his only real admirer. He wants to be a hero, but he lacks the necessary grit and determination. So he makes mistakes and bad decisions.
Adventurous: Why is Banac adventurous? Again, boredom comes into it. That and his love for Grandfather’s tales. Why does he love Grandfather’s tales? Because they take him away from the village, and the repetition he loathes.
Quick temper: Why does Banac have a quick temper? Because he is conflicted. He wants the adventure, but he knows he must be responsible. He wants to be free of Balor, but he loves him too much to let him go. He feels frustrated, and his frustration shows in anger.
As the story goes on, outside influences change Banac’s character, and we see the changes in his characterisation. For example, when Father is kidnapped it is the push Banac needs to get him out of the village and on the way to Padascel. But it is a contradiction. Banac is going on an adventure to rescue the person who represents safety and security: his father. He is adventuring because he needs that reassurance. He is trying to get away from his old life and back to it at the same time.
When Haemel comes on the scene Balor detaches his trust from Banac and fixes it on Haemel. This stings Banac, as he needs Balor’s love and admiration to validate his reckless behaviour. He becomes more reckless in an attempt to out-do Haemel and win Balor’s respect again.
When they finally reach Padascel Banac’s paradigm shift begins, as he is confronted with the reality of his ideal. He must change his whole way of thinking, because the bedrock of ‘adventure’ has been taken away from him. There is noting he can rely on, which drives him even more to find Father and ultimately seek help from Berethel.
This has gone on a bit long, but I hope you can see from it how plot and character are linked. Or they should be, if you don’t have character, your plot can meander wherever it likes and your reader will not care. If you do not have plot then your characters have nothing to hold on to. They will not learn or change.
Plot is a change is character. Even if your plot is nothing more than “the old man learns to love again” whilst sitting in an armchair.
I think once your realise this, it will free you up to go places you never thought possible with your characters.
It certainly worked for me, anyway …