I’d love to say there’s more to this pop-culture reference than just the number three, but I’d be lying.
So, it struck me a while back that I haven’t really prattled on about characters in quite a while. I’ve brought them up as kind of a sideline thing while talking about other story elements, but I haven’t focused on characters specifically. So I started thinking about them and why some come across so well on the page while others leave a reader cringing.
That got me thinking about Bob. To be honest, first it got me thinking about Yakko Warner, my usual example, but Yakko’s a pretty well-established character already. So I ended up with Bob, and wondering what could make him a good leading man for my action-adventure story about cyber-ninjas from the future.
If we want to make Bob the best character he can be, I think there are three key traits he needs to have.
First and foremost, a good character has to be believable. It doesn’t matter if said character is man, woman, child, cocker spaniel, Thark warrior, or protocol droid. If the reader or audience can’t believe in them within the established setting, the story’s facing an almost impossible challenge right from page one.
Bob has to have natural dialogue. It can’t be stilted or forced, and it can’t feel like he’s just the author’s mouthpiece, spouting out opinions or political views or whatever. The words have to flow naturally and they have to be the kind of words this person would use. I saw a story once where one high school jock said in amazement to another “You broke up with her via text?” Via? Is that even remotely the type of word or phrasing that would come out of a teenage football player’s mouth?
On a similar note, the same goes for Bob’s motives and actions. There has to be a believable reason he does the things he does. A real reason, one that makes sense with everything we know (or will come to know) about him. It’s immediately apparent, just like with dialogue, when a character’s motivations are really just a veiled version of the writer’s.
Also, please note that just because a character is based on a real person who went through true events does not automatically make said character believable. I’ve tossed out a few thoughts here about the difference between real-real and fiction-real, and it’s where many would-be writers stumble. They think because the amazing story they’re telling about Bob is true, it’s somehow valid. He really did this, therefore the reader must accept it. Alas, it just doesn’t work that way. Remember, there is no such thing as an “unbelievable true story,” only an unbelievable story.
Second, tied very closely to the first, is that a good character needs to be relatable. As readers, we get absorbed in a character’s life when we can tie it to elements of our own lives. We like to see similarities between them and us, so we can make extended parallels with what happens in their lives and what we’d like to happen in our lives. Luke Skywalker is a boy from a small town with big dreams (just like me) who goes off to join a sacred order of super powered knights (still waiting for that–but it might happen). There’s a reason so many novels and movies revolve around the idea of ordinary people caught up in amazing situations. Heck, Stephen King has made a pretty sizeable fortune off that basic premise.
Some of this goes back to the idea of being on the same terms as your audience and also of having a general idea of that audience’s common knowledge. There needs to be something they can connect with. Many of us have been the victims of a bad break up or two. Very, very few of us (hopefully) have hunted down said ex for a prolonged revenge-torture sequence in a backwoods cabin. The less common a character element is, the less likely it is your readers will be able to identify with it. If your character has nothing but uncommon or rare traits, they’re unrelatable. If Bob is a billionaire alien with cosmic-level consciousness who sees all of time and space at once and only speaks backwards in metaphor… how the heck does anyone identify with that?
Oh, but wait! I see a hand shooting up in the back. Watchmen has the all-powerful Doctor Manhattan, doesn’t it? Ahhhh, but y’see Timmy, one of the primary character traits we remember about him isn’t his omnipotence. It’s his awkward fumbling when he tries to interact with the people in his life. He’s the ultimate social outcast–trying to fit into a clique (humanity) he’s grown out of, and aware that every day he’s a little less a part of that group. He even acknowledges that losing his girlfriend–his last real connection with the clique–means he probably won’t even try to fit in anymore. If that’s not universally relatable, what is?
If readers can’t identify with Bob, they can’t be affected by what happens to him. Which brings us to our final point…
Third, a good character needs to be likeable. As readers and/or audience members, we have to want to follow this character through the story. Just as there needs to be some elements to Bob we can relate to, there also have to be elements we admire and maybe even envy a bit. If he’s morally reprehensible, a drunken jackass, or just plain uninteresting, no one’s going to want to go through a few hundred pages of his exploits… or lack thereof.
Keep in mind, this doesn’t mean a good character has to be a saint, or even a good person. The lead character of The Count of Monte Cristo is an escaped prisoner driven all-but-mad with thoughts of revenge who spends most of the book destroying the lives of several men and their loved ones. In Pitch Black, Riddick is a convicted mass-murderer who likes mocking all the people around him. Hannibal Lecter is a compelling, fascinating character on page and on the screen, but no one would ever mistake him for a role model. Yet in all these cases, we’re still interested in them as characters and are willing to follow them through the story.
A good character should be someone we’d like to be, at least for a little while. That’s what great fiction is, after all. It’s when we let ourselves get immersed in someone else’s life. So it has to be a person–and a life– we want to sink into.
Now, I’m sure anyone reading this can list off a few dozen examples from books and movies of characters that only have one or two of these traits. It’d be silly for me to deny this. I think you’ll find, however, the people that don’t have all three of these traits are usually secondary characters. Often they’re also stereotypes, too. The creepy neighbor, the gruff boss, the funny best friend, the scheming villain. They don’t need all three traits– three dimensions, if you will–because they aren’t the focus of our attention. They’re the bit players, so to speak, and a good writer isn’t going to waste his or her time pouring tons of energy into a minor character who has no real bearing on the story.
Yeah, up top when I said I was lying about the 3-D thing, I was lying. I do that.
So there you have it. Three steps to stronger, three-dimensional characters.
Next time… well, I’m running short of ideas again, so unless someone suggests a good topic, next week might be a bit of a cop-out.
Before I forget, a quick shout out to Brave Blue Mice, a fun little fiction ‘zine which asked to publish the RSS feed for the ranty blog on their site. For the record, no, I didn’t know what that meant when they asked, but Greg explained it to me in simple terms even a caveman could understand. Go visit, read some stories, and send him a few of your own.
And go write.