Tuesday, October 15, 2013

C is for Character

Or Challenge is Key

However interesting a premise may be, it has no real life without a good character (or characters) at its center.  And however fascinating a character may be in their own right, they won’t drive the story if they’re not facing steep challenges.  And they have to be motivated to meet them.

Maybe a person is out of their depth – as if they’ve just been thrown into the deep end of the pool and don’t know how to swim.  That’s motivation.  There are a number of other reasons a character could choose to take on a task that may be more than they can handle – it doesn’t matter, so long as it’s true to who they are.

For me, it feels artificial to construct characters and then create challenges for them.  I try to discover my characters, to look at the premise and find people who are facing uphill battles and write their stories.

That’s what interests me as a writer.  Those are the characters whose stories seem worth telling – because I’m intrigued to see what choices they make under pressure.  And what they reveal about themselves as they get pushed out of their comfort zone.

This helps me find out who they really are and what makes them tick, since I’m discovering the characters while I’m writing them.  I enjoy discovering what they’re really made of.  In this way, the characters become real to me, living and breathing, and giving life to the story.

I end up being surprised, both by the characters and the story itself – and that energizes my writing and (hopefully) enriches the experience for the reader.

So the question then is – how do I find these characters?  Inherent in the premise.  Take the two examples I used in the previous post –

If you have a parasite entering the brains of pets and making them attack their owners, a pet lover who has their companion turn on them is a character that already exists in the idea (assuming they survive the attack.)  Maybe they have multiple pets and have to figure out what’s happening before another goes Cujo on them.

Who has to deal with the pets who’ve gone berserk?  A veterinarian?  An animal control officer?  Maybe they notice a pattern and try to solve the mystery.  And since they’d be around animals all the time, the danger of being attacked by an infected pet would certainly present a challenge.

If you look at the premise of the parasite that removes people’s speech inhibitions, an obvious character choice would be one of those so afflicted, struggling to understand their own bizarre behavior.  Or it could be a friend or spouse attempting to figure out what’s wrong – and since they’re close to the victim they’d be at risk for contracting the same parasite from the same source.

What about a psychiatrist or police officer or bartender?  Anyone forced to deal with the consequences of how the infected people are acting could be motivated to do something about it which would lead them to confront further challenges.

Think about what’s actually happening – use your imagination to see the possibilities in the premise.  As you develop more details, the easier it becomes to see who’s fighting with the problems posed.  Who looks the most determined to act, and why?

That’s the person I want to watch, to see how they handle themselves, especially when they end up in tough spots.
Next week:  E is for Environment (or maybe Economy.)  Part of the ongoing series of my SPEC method for developing story ideas.

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