I started this post a few weeks ago and abandoned it.
I wanted to take a technical approach: a list of character qualities to consider, how I use Scrivener to facilitate the process, what people look for in story characters.
Throw all of that away. Let’s get to the heart of the matter.
When we open a book, what are we looking for most of all? A stunning opening line? A chase scene? A mysterious crime that nobody could possibly solve?
We might look for some of these things, but I’m inclined to think I’m not the only one who is drawn most powerfully (most inevitably, you might say) by the main character. (Or not drawn, as the case may be.)
What’s important in the main character of a story? Is it the character’s skill set, personality, mannerisms?
I don’t think it’s unfair (though perhaps a bit unhelpful) to suggest we look for the same things in story characters as we look for in real people. We want someone with whom we can relate, but also learn from. Don’t we?
One of the writer’s most difficult tasks is to present a range of human emotion in a way that is both polished and raw. The style, the structure, the presentation must be carefully finished, a brilliant work of art, but the language itself ought to be raw with intense, heartfelt, raging emotion.
Sometimes I write these posts with the intent to educate others on how to write. And sometimes I look at the things I’ve written and ask myself, “What qualifies me to teach anyone anything?”
I am an expert at…
Procrastinating important decisions;
Avoiding necessary confrontations with people;
Wearing socks long after the first holes have begun to appear;
Wasting money on sudden dreams that don’t last;
And similar excellent qualities.
So what do I have to teach the world?
Maybe the answer is difficult to find because the question is wrong. If I set out to teach other people about writing, I probably don’t have much to say that’s worth saying. Sure, I could quote authors and parrot old writing advice, or perhaps explain some of the mechanics of putting a story together.
But I seriously doubt whether most beginning authors need more information about writing. I mean, you are reading this on the internet, aren’t you?
If not information, then what?
I think the best gift one writer can give to another is insight–and that’s a tricky thing. Insight is not usually one of the clever ideas we have that we think will change the world.
Insight is the child of quiet, thoughtful, unforced rumination. Insight, unlike information, comes from experience.
Anyone can say, “You should begin your story in media res,” or “Your story is over 2,500 words, so it’s not really a short story.”
That doesn’t provide insight. It doesn’t deepen your love of writing or increase your desire to write.
Compare that information to–
“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”
See what he just did there? He put you in his shoes. He created an image of himself, the author, in relation to the character of a story.
The best writing advice makes our hearts explode with things we need to say because the telling makes the world around us feel brighter, sharper, more beautiful and thrilling. It doesn’t weigh us down with fresh responsibilities. Instead it frees us to say exactly what we mean to say and forget all about what we are supposed to say (or think we’re supposed to say).
That’s insight, and to wrap up a rambling post in a short space, it’s what exceptional characters do on the page.