They are pleasing to our senses, they inspire us, influence us, and they do not even exist. Fictional characters are imaginary people who mean a lot to us. They are sometimes more appealing to us than our own family. We react to them as if they are real; they instantly evoke an image in our heads. These people are the basic foundation of the craft of fiction writing.
Fiction Depends On Characters
All fiction is character-driven – every story is about the behavior of people or their substitutes such as hobbits, however fictional characters are fundamentally different than people. In three ways:
- They are simpler than real people. Even Hamlet is, with the millions of perceptions this character evoke. Still, Hamlet is simpler, than the most boring person roaming the Earth. Even if they are presented in enormous details, years of their life are unrecorded.
- Fictional characters are presented only with the most dramatic moments of their life. They have no ordinary moments, they are all left out. You wouldn’t want to read about Hamlet sleeping for eight hours, or eating, or cleaning, or doing his laundry.
- You know your family and friends by what they look like, say or do. You know them by what other people tell you about them. Real people are distinguished from fictional characters by the fact that we don’t know what they are thinking. The author can, if they choose, let us know what the characters in his work are thinking – and that is the major difference between fictional characters and ourselves.
“Fictional characters are people, whose secret lives are visible.”
It’s an unusual intimacy we have with fictional characters.
- This intimacy does not really exist, it’s an illusion – fictional characters are not real people – they are just words on a page.
- Fictional characters are presented to us by a writer, who is a real person. We know them only by report. Through the genius of the writer, you receive the feeling that you know this character profoundly.
Every character has a compelling need and reacts to it as the narrative proceeds – when needs are being met – the character expresses all kinds of positive emotions, but when a need is not met, the negative emotions cause drama, and the person is hostile, angry, annoyed, upset, afraid, vulnerable, confused, embarrassed and much more.
How does a story come to life?
A character is in a situation, with a problem, they try to solve the problem, they fail, making it even worse, they make a final attempt that may succeed or fail, and the consequences are unexpected.
You need between 2 and 20 characters to start a book – and most works of fantasy fiction have got more than 20 characters: the hero, his family, a herald, a mentor and plenty of other archetypes.
In order to be believable, a character has to have some flaws – no person is perfect and this is a way to connect the reader to the experience of your hero or heroine and their tribulations. Even your protagonist (the good guy) has to be either naïve, or arrogant, or bossy, or smart ass so that the reader might identify with him. Your antagonist has to be convincing and cruel and ghastly in appearance, but he has to have a human side as well. Remember the villain does not want to be a villain, he usually doesn’t wake up with the thought “today, I will be mean and degraded.” He is usually vain, authoritative and violent in a lot of and creative ways. Think of how to present the character traits through action. For example, you don’t write John was clumsy, but you describe how he tripped up on his way to the bedroom.
In order to create interesting folk, you have to ask them stuff. There are certain things you must know about them:
- What would completely break them?
- The best and worst thing that ever happened to them?
- What are they reluctant to tell other people?
- How do they feel about sex?
- Your character’s major flaws?
- What are they afraid of?
- What are their dreams?
- Are they spiritual?
All of these are necessary for the crafting of epic heroes and heroines. But what is most necessary is to know their motivation – and know that at all times, because it pushes your plot forward. Roy Disney says:
“It’s not hard to make decisions, once you know what your values are.”
What is your character good or convenient with? Throw the polar opposite at them, see if they deal with the challenge, for that makes a character strong. You admire a character more for their trying than for their success. When in doubt make trouble for them. In real life, we try to avoid trouble, but in fiction, we say hello to trouble because protagonists need to screw up royally in order to entertain readers.
The character is actually the author when they deal with challenges, hardships, and temptation. You have to know how he works and plays, and his past, present, and future. The more you know about your character, the better you will be able to position him in various literary situations. Most important is to love your character, but do not spare him from challenges. Character experiences growth in a dramatic situation and this is the catharsis readers are seeking when they cuddle on the sofa with a book and a cat.