Note: The Mistakes column is going to look at the mistakes I’ve made, how they can be fixed. My advice won’t be for everyone, but maybe there will be something you can take to heart.
Think of all the great characters in storytelling. Doesn’t have to be literature – you can even think of titans of TV like Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper, or movie heroes like Ellen Ripley, Scarlett O’Hara, Michael Corleone.* What if I threw names at you like Romeo, Gatsby, Frodo, Dorothy, Ahab, Buffy? Do you get clear, vivid senses of who they are and what they embody?
* Yes, I’m aware that Scarlett and Michael are also book characters. Just go with me here.
Now think of all the other forgettable characters you’ve come across. Take a peek at your bookshelf, or the books on your desk, and scan the titles. How many books have standout characters? Not many, right?
Why is that?
They don’t jingle your bells. They don’t leap out from the page or the screen and grab you by the throat and demand, Look at me! Pay attention!
So what are some of the elements out there that you can use to make your characters stand out? Here are a few traits that a lot of standout characters share.
Standout characters aren’t always likable. In my case, my first efforts at character sucked. They were limp and unmemorable. They were perfect in every way – the best fighters, the best lovers, the funniest, the smartest, the most beautiful. Hell, if they had any flaws, it was just that they cared too much.
As a result, they didn’t stand out. And that was largely because they were essentially Mary Sues/Gary Stus. My characters were usually decent, likable, morally sure of themselves, loyal and always made smart decisions. In short, the people you want to get to know in real life.
Now look at the names I’ve mentioned above. How many of these people do you really want to meet in real life? Sure, Gatsby sounds like a lot of fun – all those parties! Until you realize he’s a needy narcissist who holds a torch for a married woman and hasn’t gotten over her, and is willing to use you or dispose of you based on your relationship with said woman. Buffy is a great human, except she’s constantly getting her friends and family in serious danger. An apocalypse will do that to you. Stand too close to Dorothy, and you risk getting squished by a house or kidnapped by flying monkeys. And so on.
And do you really want to get close to someone like Tony Soprano or Walter White? I didn’t think so.
They face a ton of obstacles. Back to my Mary Sue/Gary Stu. The other thing I didn’t do right was throw enough obstacles in their way. They had problems and difficulties, sure, but they handled them just fine. Problem? Problem solved! They were too clever and smart for such piddling little quibbles. All bad guys were conquered! Sure, they got a few bruises and got knocked down a couple of times, but come on, the outcome was inevitable. Bring on the next bad guy!
Standout characters don’t act like that. Ahab didn’t find Moby Dick easily. Ellen Ripley was cornered at almost every scene by a problem. Frodo didn’t exactly hop, skip, and sing into Mordor. No, the creators of such characters were cruel, vicious gods, throwing every single possible torment they could to their character.
And not only that, they exploited their character’s specific weaknesses. Walter White is a proud individual, and there were numerous instances throughout Breaking Bad where he would have gotten away, scot-free, but for his pride. It was like a scab, and the creators of Breaking Bad picked at it every chance they got. For example, all Walt had to do, in the beginning of the show, was accept the offer of charity from his rich friends to get his cancer treatment, but his pride wouldn’t allow him to do that.
They’re obsessed. Finally, my characters weren’t obsessed. Not nearly enough. How could they be, if they were decent folk who got along just fine? They had nothing to lose, really. The characters I mentioned up top all do.
Can anyone doubt that Captain Ahab wanted to kill Moby Dick? That Romeo loved Juliet? That Humbert Humbert lusted after Lolita? That is what separates the mundane characters from the transcendent. They have passion, and they wear it on their sleeves. That doesn’t mean the characters themselves have to be outwardly passionate – Michael Corleone is a stone-cold villain. But his desires are never in doubt.
What it means for your character. If your character feels uninspiring, then consider these questions:
– What does s/he have to lose? If nothing, then give him/her something to lose. And make sure they lose it, or come very close to it.
– If the character walked away from the problem in your story, what would the effect be? If the answer is, not much, then you’re doing it wrong. Make it so that the character absolutely, positively, cannot walk away.
– What is your character’s greatest flaw? Is it pride? Lust? Wrath? Does s/he love a certain someone so much that s/he can’t see the big picture? Whatever it is, exploit it. Make every obstacle touch on your character’s most vulnerable points.
There’s lots more to character than this, obviously, but if your character lacks passion, if your character isn’t obsessed, then that character won’t stand out.