As a result of a recent flash fiction challenge, the first I’ve participated in for years, I’ve been thinking about characters.
I’ve come to the conclusion that most good stories—flash length, novel length, or otherwise—need good characters. By which I mean they need intriguing, interesting characters, or else by the law of Character Inertia ((A character in motion stays interesting, a character at rest stays boring.)) the plot never goes anywhere. Sometimes by virtue of really good characters you can even get away with straw plots or even no plot. Great characters elevate the story.
My most successful little bites of fiction always evolve from characters I have a vested interest in. Yes, I cheat; I use recurring characters in my thoughts, rather than creating fresh new ones for every flash. They’ve spent time developing, they have interesting characteristics that go beyond cookie-cutter archetypes. I like them.
But what if I were more flexible? What if I could come up with interesting characters off the bat? I’d never fear another flash fiction—and I’d never fear a long-running story with a large, developing cast, either.
Will the perfect book for this end up being Nancy Kress’s Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint? Only time and blogging will tell.
Nancy Kress espouses the same view that I’m coming around to about characters. But what I found the most interesting in the chapter was the concept of a writer’s triple-personality:
The writer, who makes choices that deal with the logistics of craft;
The character(s), who are battered around by the plot;
The reader, an outsider who only knows what’s on the page, not Scenes That Must Have Happened (but didn’t for the reader).
This is a technique that can apparently be practiced, which makes sense to me. For all that the first two may be developed, if you don’t have the third, you likely aren’t translating to the page something that the reader can parse and enjoy.
Chapter 1: Assembling the Cast
There are three major parts to this chapter:
1. Creating Characters
There’s not that much detail given here; the usual sources of yourself, people you know, and people you read about, are mentioned.
The most attention is given to the source of yourself, since this can be the source of many a Mary Sue or Marty Stu. She nails the problem that often plagues such character better than I’ve seen on TVTropes: few can see themselves objectively on the page, and that instantly destroys the third personality, leading to… well, just read the TVTropes entries. Her most salient advice: take a situation you experienced and have it happen to someone else.
I find this a good development of Bell’s mention of “going to the well of self”.
2. Auditioning Characters
This is where you find out which of the characters you’ve come up with are viable.
There a series of questions to ask about each character—and by implication, this also applies to opposition characters!—
Are you interested in this character? Do you imagine backgrounds for them? Do you wonder how they would approach something?
Is the character or their situation fresh and new, or tired and rote?
Can you be objective about the character? This rules out pretty much all Mary Sues/Marty Stus.
Should the character be a “stayer” or a “changer”? If a changer, do you actually have a suitable emotional arc for them? (I admit I fail at thinking through this part often.)
Some characters will never change, and don’t have the capacity to do so. They stay the same; Kress calls them “stayers.” Sherlock Holmes and many of mystery’s ilk are stayers. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily, nor does it mean that such characters can’t be leads—I think if you can peel layers from a stayer, that gives them as much dynamic capability as a changer.
Other characters are capable of changing, and they’re the ones that you need to find emotional arcs for. They’re “changers” and tend to have a high viability as the lead character(s).
3. Your Lead Character Changes the Story
Who you pick as your lead vastly changes the kind of story being told. This means that picking the lead is of utmost importance. It’s the natural fallout of LOCK; who you choose as the Lead will change what the Objective is, and which Conflicts matter, as well as how the Knockout will be carried out.
I’ve been discovering this to a certain amount of pain, since my current story has two leads, and dealing with the different views of the plot is like trying to spin two plates at the same time.
Odds & Ends: Elementary Character Bio
Kress provides a form covering the most basic aspects of a character, such as the character’s name ((If you do not know this fact, you are in real trouble already. I have seen slush that doesn’t name the main character. This is rotten almost all of the time and has a miniscule number of excuses, even for a first-person point of view.)), their age, their family, appearance, living arrangements, occupation (and how they feel about it), and familial background. It’s not onerous to fill out—very important to me—and I’d have to agree with her that if you can’t fill out this most basic of bios, you aren’t ready to write the character.