What makes a good story? No matter our story’s archetype, our characters are king. Or queen. Or Optimus Prime.
There are only so many story archetypes in the world. Take the star-crossed lovers. The story of Hero and Leander is perhaps one of the earliest examples of this one. Hero was a priestess of Aphrodite who lived in a tower. Leander would cross the Hellespont River every night to be with her, guided by Hero’s lamp. This story archetype surfaces in the tales of Lancelot and Guinevere, Romeo & Juliet, Cathy and Heathcliff.
What makes these stories different isn’t the settings or time periods (Ancient Greece, Dark Ages England, Medieval Florence, Nineteenth Century windswept moors) but the characters. Leander was a smooth-talking son of a gun who seduced the virginal Hero into rumpy-pumpy, only to drown on a stormy night when Hero’s lamp blew out and he lost his way. Lancelot is driven by duty and love for God until he meets Guinevere and risks everything, then leaves on a lonely quest when he realises he can’t have her. Juliet, a quiet and obedient girl, becomes a powerhouse of strength and rebellion when she decides Romeo’s the guy for her. He thinks she dies, so he kills himself. She follows swiftly after. The template for thousands of dreamy-teen stories the world over. Heathcliff is a cruel and twisted bastard who taps into Cathy’s wild and tempestuous nature and her yearning to be free of society’s constraints upon her. A co-dependent abusive relationship that paved the way for Fifty Shades of Grey and if Emily Bronte wasn’t dead I’d do her in myself for that one.
The similarity in these characters, though, is that they are all flawed. There’s no black-and-white here. And that’s what we want – what we need – for our stories: well-rounded and flawed characters who develop and grow as the story progresses.
Think of it like this: if someone asked us what we did at the weekend, the conversation might go something like this:
“Well, I was in Nando’s on Friday night and this swoon-worthy guy was at the table next to us, and this time I was determined not to be a wallflower.”
“Ha! About time! What happened?”
“I kinda-sorta nonchalantly leaned over, and I was so mesmerised I forgot I was holding a chicken wing and I dropped it into his lap.”
“O-kaaay. And how did that work out?”
“He called me a stupid tart and got up and left.”
“That is so rude!”
“I know, right? He didn’t give me the chicken wing back!” *
*This is not a true story that did not happen to me.
The real story here isn’t that it took place in Nando’s. It’s that our narrator is obviously a nerd-worthy social illiterate.
So how do we conjure a three-dimensional wonder from our imagination? First, we have to know who our characters are. So we might develop a character profile for them. Then, when we’ve worked out our character’s development, we use our story elements – plot, scene, setting, dialogue, interaction with other characters – to show our character’s journey.
We’ve got some options when it comes to character profiling. Here’s the profile template I use (in Scrivener), with a draft for a major character in my Work In Progress:
||Felicity ‘Flick’ Dunbar
|Role in Story
||Major Character POV
||Brown; shoulder-length; fine and straight
||Light Blue – stonewashed denim
||140lbs; curvy, prone to weight gain
||Soft features; averagely attractive, with a full mouth and button nose – as a young woman she was ‘cute’; as a mature woman she’s aged well into her features
||Quiet, generous, helpful, strives for a normal life, kind, resilient
||Doesn’t like swearing
||Her kids come first in everything. She hates judgemental people (having been judged herself); always gives people the benefit of the doubt – which bites her in the arse with regard to Daley later on
||Lack of confidence in her intelligence, capabilities and judgement
||She’s braver than she realises; has enormous courage; selfless
||Her father abused her when her mother died.
||That her children will leave her behind, intellectually and emotionally; no idea what she will do when they leave home; that people stereotype her as a ‘single mum’
||Working class, low-income, few possessions – old Ford Fiesta on its last legs
|Origin and Childhood
||Mother died of cancer when she was 5yrs old; father violent, uncommunicative, judgemental. He abused her from age 9-15, when she became pregnant by a boy at school. She knows it was the boy, because her father always used condoms. She was not promiscuous – she had sex with the boy because she knew if she became pregnant her father would leave her alone. She thinks the abuse by her father is a secret, that her brother never knew. But he did. They have never talked about it.
She became pregnant again at 17, when she had sex with a casual labourer in the village, a black guy – this was her first romantic love. When she had the baby, a mixed race child, her father threw her and the children out of the house; he refused to have ‘a picaninny’ in the family.
She took the children and moved to a hostel for women and then into a council house at Bridgehaven, where she has been ever since.
||At the beginning of the story, she lacks confidence in her own abilities and decision-making; she knows she’s not smart (see Fears) and she generally defers to her children when it comes to decisions. The threat to her family, though, transforms her – and she finds a hidden ruthlessness, her protectiveness of the kids transforms into a lioness-like refusal to go down. She becomes strong, internally and externally; her meekness gives way to decisiveness; she discovers that she may not be book-smart, but she is intelligent and resourceful.
|3 Critical Moments
1st external; 2x internal
- The home invasion – where she hides the kids and distracts the rapists from looking for Ally; she realises the extent she will go to to protect the kids
- Standing up to her father – when he refuses to take them in because of Ally; she purges her past
- Deciding to exile Andy from the group – when he attempts to rape Grace; she realises that she has become the leader of the group (something everyone else has already figured out)
||None: she devotes all her time, money and energy in providing for the kids
|Family & Friends
||Two children: Rob (16) and Ally (14); never married; both from different fathers; Brother Ben Holloway
A character profile is a living thing and I might need to make some changes to Flick’s profile as the story develops. Character Progression and Critical Moments – these are the cornerstones of the profile that will help me drive my character forward in the story. We can use the character profile to make sure that, when we edit, we don’t have any continuity issues that make our Dear Readers tear their hair out – or throw their eReaders across the room.
Once we start writing, though, our characters will argue with us and be determined to do the opposite of what we intend for them, because they’re pesky like that. And if they do start getting pernickety, that’s a good thing – it means they’re coming alive, jumping off the page and slapping us around the head saying ‘No! I will not do it, Creator!’ (or, if they’re anything like some of my characters, punch you in the face with a succinct ‘Fuck you!’ before slinking back to the page in a sulk).
Useful resources, book-wise, to help develop strong characters:
- The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Volger
- The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Linda N Edelstein
- Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card
- The Emotion Thesaurus and The Negative Trait Thesaurus, both by Ackerman and Puglisi
Places on the web to find free character profile templates:
Happy character-building, scribes!
The awesome picture in this post is by http://yangtianli.deviantart.com/art/the-evil-professor-163692217