Creating Honest Characters
Copyright 1994, 1996, 1999, Dorian Scott Cole
What is it that makes stories great instead of just good? Excellent plotting and characterization. These aren't things that spring from plot machines and multiple writers. Excellent plotting and characterization come from one writer doing what I call "honest" work. Honest instead of contrived plots and puppet characters.
Why do people create cardboard characters? Why is it so difficult to create a character with a different point of view and purpose in life who acts differently from others - a unique individual? Partly because characterization takes work which is outside the flow of putting one word of dialogue in front of another. And partly, I think, because it is very difficult to see others as being different from ourselves. Don't other people have the same wants and needs as we do? Aren't we all really the same, as if stamped from a cookie cutter? The cookie cutter character isn't really a blank to us, it is our self - an extension of our psyche (the essence of our mind) that does what we want if we were that character, a mirror image of ourselves. "The writer is every character he creates," states this theory of writing.
But does this create unique and honest characters? For the writer who creates characters every day, I think that creating unique and honest characters is a larger step. Unique and honest characters are ones who are capable of responding to the challenges we put them through - reacting and changing uniquely - to become a more unique character. But if every character is just an extension of our self, limited by a range of behavior and wants and needs we impose on them, which are only minimal extensions of our own wants and needs, the character can't become unique.
Can a character ever be totally unique? I doubt that very much. I see writers struggling to create unique characters, but they typically just act differently - their actual motivations are missing. We usually don't understand why people act differently. It is very difficult to write about people and experiences about whom we have no knowledge. What can we do? We can keep trying to remove the blinders we wear about human behavior, and let our characters be free to grow. Much of this site is about human behavior.
What honest writing is about, I believe, is developing characters who believe their own things and have their own problems, putting them into a story and letting them illuminate the human condition.
Honest characters with whom the writer is genuinely intrigued, put in honest situations (plot), and allowed to develop freely, will develop honest stories. Writers can develop the storyline before writing the story, and if the premise is incorrect, the characters will tell him. If they don't, the audience will.
When you create honest characters (like real people) and honest situations (real life situations), and allow the drama to unfold honestly (not manipulated to prove your point or make the plot work), what results should be honest action. Honest action will consist of several things. There should be surprises and discovery (insight). At the first turning point the protagonist stops denying he can live with the situation and he must change it. He has to go forward. Conquering the problem will usually require change on his part, resulting in insight and integration - that is, character growth.
In honest writing, the characters, to some extent, take over the story and write it because of thier motivation to resolve the problem, and because of their attitude. Attitude is the character's inclination to view a problem in his unique way, and resolve problems in his unique way. The writer gets to play God and throw a hodgepodge of situations and events at the character that he thinks will make a good story.
At the climax, usually the second major turning point, the protagonist reaches the limits of his current personality. He has met his match. He has given up or is about to give up. To be triumphant he must grow - he must become more than he was. He must find the inner strength to make the jump. Sometimes this takes insight. Sometimes insight is the result. But he integrates the new experience. He changes.
How many of us allow our characters that much freedom? How many of us are open to disproving what it is we think we want to say? Personally, I'm very opinionated and I find it difficult to get out of the way. But if you allow your writing to follow an honest path, the thrill of discovery is present from beginning to end, and no matter how much you have outlined your story it remains fun to write and interesting. This is why a writer has to remain open, not trapped in a mind set that says, "The world can only be this way."
Often we can understand character motivation, but not really know how a person will act in the same situation. Characters are ghosts, acting out one possible reaction to a situation that we guess to the best of our ability. I have often thought that I personally would act a certain way if I was ever in certain circumstances. I thought it through and knew all the things that would influence me - I knew how I would act. But when these situations later happened, I didn't act the way I thought I would because I couldn’t comprehend the depth of the experience before it happened. As I get older and more experienced, I am more able to comprehend the real depth of situations and I am better able to predict what I would do. But you can't really be in a situation until you are actually there, not even through honest characterization.
For example, I always wondered how I would react if I was confronted with a situation in which I would need to assist someone being chased by other people with guns. Would I be bold? Would I freak? Would I be a coward. When confronted with that situation, it was basically business as usual for me - my pulse failed to rise. Another example, I used to do some counseling, but haven't for years. When confronted with a situation in which counseling would be required, with some trepidation I realized the enormity of the person's situation compared to my very limited and rusty abilities, and bowed out. Another example, my father, who fought in some of the worst battles of WWII, carried a wounded (dead) childhood friend several miles back from the front lines, ignoring his own wounds. But years later, when confronted with an accident victim, he shook so hard he could hardly drive. We simply don't react the way that we think we will. Writing stories is no substitute for real life, it is just a ghostly apparition of what might be.
By fully exploring situations through other characters, the result is much better than, "If I was in that situation, this is what I would do." This statement often comes from a need for power and control, or untested belief in one's abilities or strength. Writing honestly is closer to real life because you shape the characters with the strengths and abilities you want them to have, and some people really will act as you have written. If you have tapped into the right situations and feelings, the result is an engaging story.
Honest writing is a worthwhile goal to reach for. As much as I like action movies, which are usually the epitomy of the five-writer "pump up the action and botch the characterization and plot" style of writing, they don't compare to the more genuine and thought provoking experience of watching The Huntchback of Notre Dame, Fiddler on the Roof, Groundhog Day, Mr. Destiny, October Sky, or even The Matrix.