What makes a story memorable? I’ve said this before, but even though I was too young to really understand the plot for the first Star Wars movie when I first saw it, I fell in love with Han Solo. And dear old Han became one of my favorites in a long list of characters who helped me learn how to tell stories with people.
The Pirates of the Caribbean movies would never have happened had it not been for Jack Sparrow. … Pardon me. Captain Jack Sparrow. And even movies that are plot heavy, like Gosford Park, are only truly fascinating because of the interaction between the 25 or so main characters you have to sort through.
So how do you build a great character? I’ve talked about secondary characters and supporting characters, but secondary characters are only effective if you have a primary character to start with.
The first thing you need to remember about character is exactly the same thing you need to remember about story: conflict.
Story is conflict, and character is conflict. If you don’t have conflict, you don’t have a story. If you don’t have conflict, you don’t have a compelling character.
Look at yourself as a person. Do you have conflict in your life? If you live on the little dirtball we call planet Earth, yes, you do. Maybe it’s not huge. Maybe it’s not life-threatening like other people, but you have conflict in your life. Everyone does. So all your characters should too.
Character is conflict.
At the writer’s workshop I just attended a few weeks ago, I selected the session with author and former homicide detective Mark Mynheir, and part of what we did in the breakout sessions was working with character profiles. One of the topics we discussed was what our characters needed.
Every protagonist should have two needs: one seen and one unseen. In other words, every main character needs to have two problems, an obvious problem that he needs to solve and a not-so-obvious problem that also needs a resolution.
In one of Mynheir’s books, The Night Watchman, which I’m reading right now, his main character has two needs: to solve the crime (an external, obvious problem) and to find redemption (an internal, not-so-0bvious problem that he wouldn’t admit to at gunpoint).
A character without conflict, both external and internal, is flat and boring. After all, no one you know is like that. So why should you create a character like that?
In my own novel, Xander, my main character has a lot of needs, but her main obvious problem is that she can’t remember who she is. She has lost her memory and is trying to get it back. But her internal problem is the fact that she never knew who she was to begin with. She thought she did, but even after she regains her memories, she realizes that she had always placed her identify in things that didn’t really define her.
So how do you build your main character?
Well, the beautiful part about characters is that you have no limits whatsoever. That’s why character-driven storytelling is so much fun. You have as many options to tell a story as you can imagine. Just as the people on the earth are varied and fascinating, so can your catalog of characters be.
The best way I’ve found to build a character is to observe people.
I know. That sounds creepy. But, trust me, it works.
Go sit in a Wal-mart parking lot for an hour and make notes. Go to a restaurant and pay attention to how people interact. Go to a movie theatre and watch how people get ready to watch the movie. Watch how people put gas in their car.
At this moment, I’m on vacation with my family, heading down to Galveston Island in Texas for my first real vacation in three years, and I’m sitting in the lobby of a Hampton Inn in Austin. And there’s a family with a lot of kids all sitting together close by. They all have luggage with rolling wheels, and they all smell like sunscreen. And they have eaten enough oatmeal to fill a barn.
Why? Where are they going? Who are they? Where are they from? What are they doing?
The journalist in me could walk over and quiz them, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it might creep them out. So the creative writer in me is starting to make up a story for them.
Let’s pick one of them.
The youngest girl. She looks to be about 10 years old. She looks like a soccer player, that small light fast build, her hair in a pony tail, shorts and tall socks. She has a bright smile, and she’s tan, unlike the rest of her family. And actually — looking again — her hairline is different than the rest of them too.
So what about this? Let’s say this little girl is a 10 year old soccer champion from up north, but she is adopted. And her adopted family has all brought her down to Texas to participate in some junior soccer competition.
All right. There’s a story.
What are this little girl’s needs? Her obvious problem? She needs to win the soccer tournament. Her not-so-obvious problem? She wants to prove herself a worthy daughter to the family that took her in.
Conflict. External conflict is fun and it keeps the action moving, but internal conflict makes you care about the character. And it’s that caring about the character that keeps you turning the pages because you want to know what happens to her.
So when you’re building a character, remember that character is conflict.
Next time, I’ll write about pacing your character’s story arc.