Characters with… character. part 1 of 3

For most readers, novels are judged by the degree to which readers care for the players in the story. Character-driven stories haven’t just evolved; they’re as old as storytelling itself. 36612546_mlAnd yet, far too many novice novelists concentrate more on plots than players. The truth is, good novels must excel at both. A further truth is that the complexity of the characters often generates complexities in the story line. They ought to be inextricably linked. If you think in terms of DNA strands, you’ll begin to get the picture.

So, how does one go about creating characters that matter? It takes time and patience. And maybe a few suggestions. Here’s one way that’s guaranteed to work, provided you follow all the steps.

A Character Logline? At the outset, most of us already have a character in mind, so let’s start with what we’ve got and use it to write a character logline. Sometimes called an “elevator pitch,” a logline is just a one-liner that sums up a character and his/her role in the story. Keep it to 140 characters or less. Like these:

  • “The Big Bad Wolf, an aging loner with an insatiable taste for pork, seeks survival in the form of three pigs living nearby.” (122 characters)
  • “Han Solo is a devil-may-care space jock with a hot rocket ship and too many enemies, who falls in with a princess and a wannabe hero.” (133 chars)
  • “Scarlett O’hara is a pampered Southern belle whose goals in life suddenly change from finding a proper husband to surviving the Civil War.” (138 chars)

If you’re struggling with your own character, try doing loglines for well-known players in existing books and movies.

What’s the PROBLEM? Remember, the character must have a problem. It’s why he/she exists, and it helps to generate plot(s). Figure out what the problem is, and spell it out as briefly as you can. If you’ve already included it in your logline, you’re ahead of the game. Use anything that stands in the way of the character reaching their goal. You want examples? We’ve got ’em. These are all perfectly valid fiction issues:

  • 63722024_ml-plusA girl can’t find a date.
  • A guy is pursued by a soul-eating monster escaped from Hades.
  • A woman deals in used souls but has lost her own.
  • A man longs to hear the symphony but is going deaf.

Consider poor, brilliant Walter O’Brien from the CBS TV show “Scorpion.” His problem isn’t the bad guys he encounters; it’s his inability to interact with “normal” people, primarily his love interest, Paige. Whatever gets in the way of their eventual connection is mere plot complication. The real driving force for Walter is his inability to connect with her.

In general terms, the problem is the immediate issue–why we’re here, watching this character, right now.

What good is a problem without a solution? Your character must think he has a solution to the problem. (No, not you, the writer; it must come from the character.) He or she must have a potential solution in mind, and it is precisely that which launches the tale.

  • 52010147_ml-txtThe gal who can’t find a date may decide her best bet is to rent a permanent booth in the trendiest singles bar in town.
  • The character who can’t duck the soul-eater from Hades may opt to join the space program in order to put some serious distance between himself and the boojum.
  • The dealer in dead souls may join a Buddhist order to find sanctuary in some remote mountain temple.
  • The guy who’s losing his hearing might seek out a faith healer or a witch doctor if he can’t afford traditional medical remedies.

If you haven’t been taking notes and/or writing down your responses to the questions, go back and do it now. You’ll need the answers when we get to part 2 next time around.


About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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2 Responses to Characters with… character. part 1 of 3

  1. Gerald W. Flinchum says:

    Is it possible to have a character, or group of characters in the main story with a problem that’s unsolvable, or a story that doesn’t have a solution. IE: a spirit that roams the mountains in North Georgia that randomly appears to hikers, hunters, and rangers, It’s not harmful, but doesn’t go away…

  2. joshlangston says:

    Sure! The essential element, to my way of thinking at least, is that they *think* they may have a solution. The spirit who wanders the mountains ought to believe that at some point, he’ll reach his goal, even if the rest of the world knows it’ll never happen. Think of Odysseus, the poor schlub.

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