The art of character is, like all arts, difficult to learn and impossible to master. It is also, in my opinion, one of the most important elements of good fiction. The greatest epic saga is meaningless if it is populated by two-dimensional characters. You can no more have a good story with them than you could have an interesting conversation with a cardboard cut-out. Read the submission guidelines of just about any decent publisher and the words ‘character driven’ are just about guaranteed to popup somewhere.
This isn’t news to anyone, but the nuts and bolts – the how – of character development is where things start to get all ill-defined and hard to pin down. Here is some of the advice I’ve come across (not direct quotes):
Don’t think of them as characters but as real people with desires and fears and emotions.
Every character must want something, even if it is just a glass of water.
Characters must need as well as want something.
Highlight details of appearance, speech patterns or clothes to reveal personality.
Don’t get me wrong, this is all good advice, on the surface of things – but I started running into problems as soon as I attempted to apply these lessons in real time. At first, I tried assigning each character a desire, a flaw, and a detail of appearance or speech. That seemed kind of contrived, to begin with. Then, once the story really got rolling, the characters started to do things which didn’t fit with who I originally thought they were, thus rendering all my clever details irrelevant. Or, if I decided to force them to act in a way that was consistent with my initial visions for them, they came off as fake and the plot became forced.
As I asked myself this question and searched for the answer in the pages of many books and podcasts, I came across three key concepts that have since improved my approach and my writing: The Motor, The Spine, and The Star.
I’ll begin with The Motor.
Every character must have a motor. To put it plainly, a motor is a thing which makes another thing go. In other words, find what makes your character act, and then make it have them act.
It is important here to distinguish a motor from a want or need. The short answer is that what drives someone is not necessarily the same as what they most desire. You might want to murder someone, but you are driven by rage, say, or greed. The motor, in other words, represents an inner quality that allows you to pursue the things you want. The want/need is the destination – the motor is the gas that gets you there, the thing inside you that allows you to commit the necessary actions.
The thing with motors, however, is that you have to keep them going. It isn’t quite like a desire, which you can establish for a given character near the beginning and then not really mention it again. The motor must keep running, and the best way I’ve found to do this is to put obstacles in the character’s way (which is itself another often quoted writing tool, but that’s another post). If you want to kill someone, and you almost manage it but are foiled at the last moment, well now you really want to kill them. The proverbial motor revs up.
Besides a motor, it is also important to give your characters spines. I mean, everyone should have a spine. But especially characters in books. And I am talking, of course, about the figurative rather than the literal spine, although arguably the latter is far more important for different reasons.
Anyway, the most obvious reason to include a spine is what happens when you don’t. A spineless character cannot stand up for themselves, are fuzzy and ill defined, and generally don’t take action. You will recognize all of these traits as things you absolutely do not want in a book. These kinds of people, when you meet them in real life, are horribly boring. Nice, perhaps. Contented – accomplished, even. But always boring.
I’m not saying it’s a bad idea to have a timid or shy character. But don’t mistake shyness and timidity for lack of spine. If you choose to have such a character in your book, go right ahead – just make sure you make the person in question emphatically timid; overbearingly shy.
A great example is Wormtail, in Harry Potter. He is a grovelling coward. He has no spine at all, by the traditional definition. My point is that I’m not talking about spines even in the traditional figurative sense. The thing about Wormtail is that he’s so cowardly, so fearful and so spineless that these things completely define him. They are his spine. He isn’t lukewarm, and he isn’t a weak character, because he’s a weak character. He’s so weak, in fact, that he becomes interesting to read about, if for no other reason than because we hate him.
A spine, in other words, is just another way of saying that your character acts out their personality in its extremes. What characterizes someone? Bravery? Then have them be excessively brave. Play around with it, by all means, and have the apparently brave person be revealed, in the crunch, to be a coward. But whatever they do do, just make sure they do it with every bit of their imaginary hearts.
The third idea I want to talk about is one I came across while reading one of my favourite On Writing books by The War of Art author Steven Pressfield. The book in question is: No One Wants to Read Your Shit (And What To Do About It). If you want to write like a pro, go read both of those, and everything else he’s ever written on the subject with his editor, Shawn Coyne.
Anyway, in the book he has a chapter titled Write for a Star. The idea behind it is that regardless of what you’re writing, be it a script, literary novel or comic book – you should always write your characters as though they’ll be played by an A-list actor. Now I should stress that it doesn’t need to be a specific star – I don’t even think it has to be a real star that exists on the planet. It’s just an approach.
Look at the characters in your current work in progress, and ask yourself: if you made this into a script and took it to Hollywood, would an A-list celebrity be willing to play X?
What this does is prevent you from creating weak (spineless) characters. It might also give you an idea of how much depth you’ve given them. Good actors love playing parts which require a wide range of emotion over the script. I mean sure, there’s the Terminator, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. You want to attract a guy like Daniel Day Lewis or Leonardo Dicaprio, and the way to do that is to make interesting characters shown from a unique angle, or in an original light.
This does not just apply to your central characters, either. Good actors have a way of making even the most non-essential side characters into fascinating people. Look what Johnny Depp did with Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: the pirate was meant to be a sidekick type, a trickster to play in contrast to the lead role. Several movies later he’s the main attraction. Marlon Brando only appears briefly at the end of Apocalypse now. Anthony Hopkins only had fifteen minutes of screen time in Silence of the Lambs and he won an Oscar.
So… your characters begin, limp colourless things, like dolls without faces. You can add some colours and clothes and pull the strings to make them dance around, and maybe that will give them some unique qualities, help discern them from the crowd.
But only when you give them a spine to hold them steady, a motor to push them onward, and the qualities of a star, do they truly come alive.