Making Characters Work for You

Oh what to eat first! Just more food for thought!

Oh what to eat first! Just more food for thought!

We’ve discussed memorable characters and briefly touched on some of the qualities that make them work. But what really makes a character work in a story, movie or book?

For those of you who watched the tv series, Breaking Bad, you’ve seen great characters at work. The series has characters you can relate to; love, hate and even feel sorry for. But, if you were really into the series, you can say one thing, there is no character there that does not elicit some type of reaction from the viewer. Hmmm, wonder why that is?

In dissecting the issue, let’s look at some of the character traits. Walter White is faced with a life threatening situation. He also is strongly motivated to provide for his family. He’s so motivated that he is willing to do just about anything to accomplish his goal. In seeking that goal, he goes out on many limbs and does things that no one, well at least most anyone would ever expect of him.

Then, look at Jesse. He is also pulled into Walter’s world and while his motivations are drastically different, he embarks on a journey with Walter that changes him profoundly. They have conflict, dramatically different views on many things, but as they progress through their journey together, they also learn how the other looks at things. Even when they disagree, they slowly develop a semblance of respect for the other.

Okay, so I’ve oversimplified things – I didn’t want to do any “spoiling” for those who have not seen the show. But, these characters are very complex. There are no simple solutions to their dilemmas and their motivations are not all about any one thing, but arise from different layers in each of their lives. They are not one-dimensional, but multi-faceted. They can feel sympathy for something simple or complex. They can react with rage over big or small events. They can withdraw or lash out because of situations encountered. And all of these things can create tension; between the characters and between the characters and events, or objects, that create some dissonance in their psyche.  All of these add interest and tension.

Interest and tension. One creates the other. Create tension between two or more characters and interest blooms. Create even more tension, distress, conflict, or whatever to put characters at odds with each other or their environment, and interest grows. Interest keeps the viewer and the reader engaged.

Much has been said about making sure characters encounter conflict. It is true that this is the basis for tension which is what keeps people on the edges of their seats, or as an author wants more than anything, readers turning the pages!

Food for thought and hopefully, a little stirring of the juices here! Until next time – happy writing!

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