April 2020: Building Character

Before you start writing a character, it’s important to understand what a character is.

I don’t mean that question in the psychological sense, but in the mechanical one. In general terms: why do stories need characters? In particular ones: what kind of character do you need at this moment? To answer those questions clearly, it’s important to have an understanding of what characters actually do.

All art – regardless of type, school, or genre – exists to evoke an emotional response, to make the person experiencing it feel something. Paintings and photographs do it with lighting and composition. Film and theatre do it with movement and facial expressions. Music does it with keys and crescendos. However, though all of these different types of art might tell a narrative, a piece of narrative art itself primarily evokes emotions through the use of characters. The person experiencing the story uses the characters within it as a medium to interpret the events of that story. In the simplest terms: in a story, things happen to characters, and the result is what is supposed to evoke the desired emotion from the audience.

Of course, not just any emotion will do. Usually, when you write a story, you want the reader to feel a particular range of emotions in a given circumstance. Ultimately, that’s what a story is judged on. If a narrative doesn’t evoke the intended emotion, it feels wrong If there is a disconnect between how the audience feels, and how a narrative wants them to feel, then you have a bad story. 

All of this is to say that control over how what emotions you evoke at any given time is key to a good story, and as a writer, your most important tools in doing so are your characters. Audiences will cheer when good things happen to characters they sympathise with, even if the ‘story’ says they’re the villain. Audiences will be become sad when sympathetic characters have bad things happen to them. If those bad things were imposed by another character, they might get angry. If that other character is also sympathetic, they might feel the sort inner conflict which gives a story moral complexity. The emotions your story evokes at any given time is ultimately a consequence of your plot colliding with your characters. Whether or not you evoke the desired emotions depends on how the audience regards the characters in question.

Which means the very first question you need to ask yourself when you’re developing a character is: ‘How do I want my audience to feel about this character?’

The answer to that question should be the basis of what that character is.

Naturally, you’ll want readers to feel different ways towards different characters, but you’ll always want them to feel something. Not for nothing are the eight words no author wants to hear ‘I don’t care what happens to these people’. To establish, maintain, and control this emotional connection between character and reader, a writer needs to determine and ultimately demonstrate three properties of any given character: who they are at first glance, how they became the way they are, and how they react to the events and setbacks which the world throws at them, or more concisely: Concept, Circumstances, and Conflict.

A character’s Concept is who they are socially, emotionally, and physically, distilled. It’s how you would describe that character to the uninitiated in one sentence or less. If you want a character to be interesting, then creating an interesting Concept is vital. 

Personally I believe that the best character Concepts are the ones which introduce themselves as contradictions: the pacifist soldier, the coward with a hero’s reputation, the power-hungry idealist.  That’s because a contradiction automatically begs two questions of the audience: ‘How did they become so contradictory?’ or ‘if those two contradictory elements came into conflict, which one would win?’.

These are not questions you should answer immediately.

The key to maintaining an audience’s interest in a character is suspense, and suspense can ultimately be described as what takes place between making the audience ask a question, and answering that question. However, that doesn’t mean you should ideally keep everything not revealed in a character’s establishing scene a secret until the moment of a final reveal. An audience will lose interest in a character if nothing new ever happens to them. This means that to keep interest, a writer often needs to keep feeding it. This is where Circumstances and Conflicts come in.

Circumstances are, effectively, the character’s backstory. Since nobody is born fully emotionally or physically formed, Circumstances serve as the answer to the first question, that of ‘why is this character like this?’ Conflicts, on the other hand, are elements which challenge the character in ways which require a response. How that character responds to that challenge throws greater light on who they are, answering the second question.

Characters are made compelling by the way that these three elements – Concept, Circumstances, and Conflicts – interact. An interesting Concept means that the audience wants to know more about that character – a need that is fed by the uncovering of that character’s Circumstances. Circumstances, in turn, not only provide context to a character’s Concept, but also to the way they handle Conflicts. Meanwhile, Conflicts not only serve to reveal hidden parts of a character’s Circumstances and Concept through the way that character reacts to them, but it also might change some part of the character’s Concept itself.

Working together, these three elements catch your audience’s attention and keep them emotionally invested, but they also serve as levers for you to set what emotions you want your audience to feel. Make the audience feel good by having a Brave-but-uncertain (Concept) character overcome (Conflict) a past trauma (Circumstance). Make the audience feel sad or helpless when a Moral-but-loyal (Concept) character inflicts harm (Conflict) because of a childhood promise (Circumstance). So long as you have these three factors in combinations that fit within the internal logic of your story, you should be able to have all the ingredients necessary not only to make a character which your audience will be interested in, but one which will make them feel the emotions you need them to so that they can serve your narrative.

%d bloggers like this: