Writing Characters that Maximize Your Story

I realized recently I have a bit of an issue with my writing: I keep conceiving of characters that hurt the potential of my stories. I don’t know if this is a problem other writers have, or if it’s something that writers often think about, but I’m beginning to realize it’s very important.

The best storytelling is the opposite of life: It’s clean, tight, and closed-ended. Of course there are exceptions, but from a strictly technical standpoint stories that have those attributes tend to have a more lasting impact. Why this is, I’m not sure. Maybe because a strong structure allows a reader/viewer to more easily follow the emotional peaks and valleys of the story. Regardless, there is a two-way street in these stories. One in which the story serves the characters (these events can only happen to these people) and the characters serve the story (the story can only play out the way it does because of these people). Spiderman only works because Peter Parker is the type of kid that would be in a position to be bitten by a radioactive spider, and his personality was such that he used his powers in that specific way. If he were a bit dumber, no spider bite. If he were a bit lazier, no superhero. If he were a bit bigger of an asshole, he’s a villain instead.

This leads me to my problem. I’m having an issue creating characters that fit well into my stories. Because of this I’m not maximizing the potential of the stories I want to tell. For example, in The Time Bubble I wanted my character to be an everyman. Someone not too smart, not too strong, not too interested. An unbiased bystander, so to speak. But when I wrote the story that way, my themes got lost. There was supposed to be discussion on the Government’s role in people’s day-to-day lives, but the character wasn’t the type of person who would have those types of discussions. And if he did, he wouldn’t have the capability of speaking about it intelligently. All of this led to my breaking one of the cardinal rules of screenwriting: Your protagonist should be proactive, not reactive. If he’s reactive, he’s boring. He’s not the one doing anything, things are happening to him.

On more recent rewrites I’ve changed the character to fit in better with the world I created and the story I want to tell. He’s become someone that was in the military, giving him reason to be away from home (theme – homesickness) and have an opinion on the Government (theme – how much is too much Government?). The story is stronger for it, but I lost the everyman I conceived the story with.

The lesson is to be sure that your characters are married to your story, and vice versa. Otherwise you’ll run into a lot of problems delving as deeply into the story as is necessary for it to be most effective. Then you’ll have lots of rewriting to do.

1 Comment

  1. NordlysSørensen

    Sometimes they say 'kill your darlings' and you did. Is a good step.
    I don't cry over my darlings.

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