Chuck Wendig has outdone himself this time.
I know I've said this before--often--but this is one of the best posts on character development I've read (adult language warning -->): Plot & Character.
I need to work on my characterizations, I need to make them more vivid. My goal--and I think most writers share this in common--is to create characters readers not only can picture and understand--characters that seem real--but to create characters readers empathize with.
So. I'm going to interrupt my series on Dan Wells' 7-Point System to talk about, first, what constitutes a well-defined character, a rounded character, a character that feels so real your readers cry when he almost dies and grin like kids at Christmas when he achieves his goal. In short, characters your readers can identify with. Second, I'll talk about how you can begin crafting such a character.
Let's get started!
The Character Logline
Chuck Wendig points out that, just like screenplays and novels (and pretty much any kind of story) characters can have loglines. That is, they can have a short--usually one sentence--summary/description.
Recall that a logline attempts to capture the essence of a story.
So, let's attempt to craft a logline that captures the essence of a character. Chuck Wendig gives us a fabulous example of the sort of thing he's looking for. He writes:
“Dexter Morgan is a serial killer with a code of honor hiding in plain sight among the officers of the Miami Police Department.”
Right there, bam! Look at all the contradictions, the conflict waiting to happen.
Dexter's a serial killer with a code of honor (right there I'm interested) and he's working in a police department! The bird is surrounded by cats, hiding in plain sight.
That's a heck of a character concept. Further, you can see immediately that the whole series, all the stories, naturally grow from the main character, who he is.
A Character IS Something
When I read Chuck Wendig's description of Dexter Morgan one thing struck me like a runaway Mack Truck: A character IS something.
Clear as mud? Let me throw out a few examples and you'll see what I mean.
Neo (The Matrix) is The One.
Dexter Morgan (Dexter) is a serial killer.
Walter White (Breaking Bad) is a drug manufacturer and dealer.
Sherlock Holmes is a detective.
Tony Soprano (The Sopranos) is a mob boss.
Captain Malcolm 'Mal' Reynolds (Firefly) is a captain.
Dr. House (House) is a diagnostician.
Orphan Black is a hustler and a clone.
Harry Potter is a wizard.
Each character contains within themselves--by their nature, their occupation, or both--the seeds of both their deep desire (/their goal/the story goal) and the opposition to that goal.
Neo is something. He is The One, the one who transcended the matrix and could manipulate it. It was like his very own holodeck! But he didn't start out knowing this. Neo's journey was from (among other things) ignorance to wisdom. Who Neo was set the endpoint and implied the challenges he would have to face.
Dexter is the best example, or at least my favorite.
"Serial killer," that phrase, is packed with emotion. It is provocative. Thick. Shocking.
When I first saw the promo's for Dexter I thought, "Really? A hero who is a serial killer, they'll never pull it off." Ha! Good thing I'm not a producer.
One of the reasons the show worked--and I'll talk about this throughout the post--everything that happens in that show happens because of who Dexter is: a person compelled to kill. That, by itself, wouldn't have been very interesting--not to me at least--but this is a monster with a code of honor. That is unique. That is interesting. That's a concept you can build a novel around. (Dexter was based on a series of novels by Jeff Lindsay.) More on this later.
Now, let's don our white lab coat, pull the irritatingly bright examination light closer, clutch the rusty scalpel in our shaking hand, and take a closer look at a few well done characters most of you are familiar with. (I was going to go with a dissection metaphor but decided that, even for the day after halloween, it was a tad grizzly.)
1. What does your character want?
Dexter wants to kill people. No, that's not right. Dexter needs to kill people. It is a drive, a craving, one that he's helpless to resist.
Dexter's need, his deep dark desire, is the engine that drove each episode of the show forward. Can you imagine what an episode of Dexter would have been like if the lead character woke up and realized, "Huh. I don't want to kill anymore."
I believe that Dexter's code of honor--basically, that he only kills those who deserve it; other murderers--is also a deep need, one not borne of compulsion. I believe it comes from his humanity and, really, is why the character is interesting. Without this balancing need Dexter (to my way of thinking) would just be a monster. His desire to be normal is what makes him a tragic figure.
Chuck Wendig, on the other hand, believes Dexter's code of honor is a limitation (we'll talk more about limitations later). That's a valid, perfectly fine, way of looking at it. Wouldn't the world be dull if we all agreed?
Walter White IS a brilliant chemist with a terminal disease and a baby on the way.
Walter's need: To ensure his family is provided for.
How Walter chooses to meet this need: make high quality meth and sell it.
You see the pattern? What the character IS implies/contains the seed of their deep need and, thus, their problem: how to meet their need (/how to quench their desire, /how to achieve their goal). If a story can be compared to a car the main character's need, his goal, is the internal combustion engine.
Without Walter's need to provide for his family, without him being a brilliant, desperate, chemist, there would have been no story, no show.
This is what writers mean when they say that character is plot. Plot should flow naturally out of the main character.
Sherlock's need is to be amused. Interested. Not bored. "The game," as he so often says in the original stories, must "be afoot!"
He is a natural detective, compulsively unravelling mysteries.
Sherlock's need to stave off boredom drives him to put himself, as well as those he cares about, in harms way if a sufficiently interesting puzzle/mystery presents itself.
One more example:
a. Harry Potter IS the boy who lived.
He is the boy who the evil wizard Voldemort could not kill.
Harry Potter wants Voldemort to go away and for him just to be a normal wizard. Harry Potter being the boy who lived--the boy who nearly killed the dark lord--makes him a symbol of hope for those allied against the dark lord. On a personal level, this works against him. It makes folks expect ridiculous things of him (saving them from he-who-must-not-be-named) and it makes Voldemort's followers loathe him.
Harry's need: when Harry's at Hogwarts he wants to be a normal, completely unexceptional, wizard.
b. Harry Potter IS a wizard.
When Harry's not at school he must stay with the magic-hating Dursleys. Put a boy who can't control his magic, a boy who doesn't even know he's magical, with relatives who have a fanatical hate of magic and you've got a tinderbox of conflict just begging for a match.
That's it for today! I thought I'd be able to get through all this material in one day, but I guess not.
Until next time, good writing!
I'm going through NaNoWriMo again this year.
I'm part of a great Google+ Community, the Writer's Discussion Group, and we're getting together using the hashtag #wdgnano. Come and hang out with us whenever you like. This weekend a bunch of us are doing a 10,000 word weekend. I'll let you know how it went. (grin)
My word count so far is zero for NaNo, though I did write about 2,600 words so far, but that's just been for this blog post (and the one on Monday). So, only 3,300 more words to go! lol
Photo credit: "hello." by 55Laney69 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.