Happy Monday! I've been thinking about characters a lot. Let me ask you something. If your book could only have one thing, Great Characters or Great Plot, which would you pick? Now think of some of your favorite books. Which do you love most, the characters or the plot? Without reading the rest of this post, go put your answers to those to questions in the comments. I'll wait. Seriously go do it. While you do, I'll check Twitter.
In my opinion, characters are far more important. Sure, you need a good plot for a good story, but unless the characters going through that plot are interesting, engaging, and compelling, no one's going to care if they evade the serial killer who uses an elephant for a murder weapon. (Yes, that is the most interesting plot I could think up that I don't plan on writing about. Sue me. But seriously, don't do that.)
As a MG/YA high fantasy writer, I've always hated character sheets. Character's Job: Um . . . minor. No. Not miner, minor. City: Caravan of traders? Pets: There's barely enough food for the family. Seriously? Why waste money on pets. Sports Played: I'm done.
So worksheets have never helped me. Something that has helped me is asking a few questions, two specifically.
1) For what would this character die for?
For instance, would the mother die for any child? Or only ones she knows? What about the child that hurt and bullied her children? What about ideas? Would she die for her religion? Would she give her life to help an animal in trouble? Would she die fighting for justice?
This question looks at what is, ultimately, important to the character. In my opinion, the character that has more items on this list has a stronger moral compass, but you could flip that idea on it's head. You could have a character who believes strongly in a cause that generally considered wrong, like eugenics. Or a good guy who believed in a thieve's right to steal if he can get away with it.
Generally, the good guy will die for almost anyone. The good guy has a strong sense of empathy. This is why so often the villain could kidnap anyone off the street and threaten to kill them and the good guy would walk right in to the trap. That's just how your typical hero is.
Your villain, on the other hand, might not die for anyone. He might let his daughter be killed before risking his life to save her. That kind of selfishness is a hallmark for villains.
2)Who would this character kill and under what circumstances?
Now, I know that this isn't a question you want to ask about your hero, but try to be honest. For instance, if someone was threatening my life, I don't know if I would kill them. I'm a Christian. I know where I'm going when I'm dead. (Heaven, in case you were wondering) So I hope I wouldn't kill them. But if they were threatening my little brothers' lives? That would be a much harder call.
Find these lines in your characters. Would they kill anyone to protect their vulnerable siblings? Would they kill a young mother with a newborn baby? A child the same age as their siblings?
Would your character kill at all? Is there someone your character would never kill?
There are two TV shows where this is explored really well, in my opinion. The first is the show Once Upon a Time. It's on ABC and you should watch it if you write fantasy. Really you should watch it either way.
*SPOILERS from SEASON 2, Once Upon a Time*
In this show, the main couple, Mary Margret (Snow White) and David, (Prince Charming) vow to never kill. They always find ways to defeat their enemies without death. This is stated several times in the series. But then Snow finds out the evil sorceress in town in responsible for her mother's death. She orchestrates the death of the sorceress, and it is a huge character development.
The other show is Robin Hood, the BBC show. This is another great show I highly recommend.
*SPOILERS from SEASON 2, Robin Hood*
In this show, Guy of Gisborne is in love with Lady Marian. She is pretty much the only person who can still reach Guy on any level of humanity. She doesn't return his feelings, but leads him on, sometimes, to manipulate him so that she can help Robin Hood. Through a series of events, Marian tells Guy she won't ever love him. He kills her. For me, that's when Guy turned from a misunderstood character who might still find redemption to a true villain who can no longer relate to humanity. He lost his empathy.
Do you see how the creators of both shows found the limits of their characters and then found what could make those characters go past their limits? That's good character development, in my opinion. That's how characters and plot should interact.
Maybe you're not writing stories on a life or death scale. Maybe you write contemporary romance. This stuff is still good to know. It can really help you understand your characters.
Don't stop here. Keep finding the lines of your characters. Because when you find one line, you have a character that looks like this:_________________
But with two lines, you can add a second dimension. Your character can become a silhouette.(left) And when you add a third line, you gain that third dimension.(right) And when you keep exploring, and you keep poking to see how far your character will go, can go, that's when you start to not just see the character, but hear them, feel them, and smell them. That's when they leap off the page.(bottom)
So keep poking your characters. Ask: how far they'd go to get their way; how far they'd go to protect their most firmly held belief; how far they'd go for a stranger; what happens when their lines meet and only one can stay unbroken; what would they do to protect the antagonist? If their kitten and the antagonist were both falling on a cliff, who would the hero save?
Hopefully after you think about this for a while, you'll have a better understanding of your characters, what their lines are, and what they'd cross those lines for.
Let me know if this post made you think. How do you get to know your characters? What are some things they would never do? I'd love it if you let me know. Also, if you have any posts you'd like to see, let me know!
Thanks for reading and have a great week!