Temples are places of worship, sanctuaries of knowledge, and monoliths to that which has come before. In this series, I will be exploring the elements that make up the pillars of storytelling. No figurative stone of the storytelling temple is more important than another, and they all work together to make something, that alone, they could not. Join me for part one of this multi-part series into the temple of storytelling. Click here for part one.
There are places in Italy where time seems to have weight, and all that has come before hangs over the present like a fog. When I studied abroad there for a semester, the memories I made and discovered, shaped me into something new. They impact me in ways I don't consciously think about.
There is one moment that seems to stand above the rest. Our group was in Pompeii for a day trip, and the usual tour began. Not wanting to sit through yet another guided tour about all the parts of a place you can read on Wikipedia, I decided to break away. I wandered through the city, now barely more than hardened sand and gravel, the roofs all missing, doorways now pointless on the buildings that once housed families, communities, life just like our own. Then I came across what can only be described as tangible ghosts: the remains of a few citizens caught in terror. The moment they were buried in the flash of burning ash has lasted for almost two thousand years. They are but shells of who they once were.
Their lives can be reconstructed from the what is left of the homes around them. Their customs, their daily routines, the food they ate, the activities they may have taken part in, all these things can be learned of these empty vessels. We know about them, but we don't know who they were. It's a subtle difference but realizing this, changes everything.
As storytellers, when we are creating our own worlds, plots, settings, disasters, and all the characters that will go into that mix, it's a difference we need to be mindful of.
“When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.”-Ernest Hemingway
Are your characters people? Or are they shells that we know about?
Creating a character is no easy task. This isn't a video game where you choose what preset face, hair style, and types of weapons they will use. Your characters aren't on pre-destined paths where you decide the slight variance of how they get to the end. The boundaries are completely torn off. It's like having a blank sheet of paper taken away from you and then given a blank ocean to use as a canvas, in all its grandeur and depth.
So where does a task so vast begin?
It all begins with a phrase writers hear over and over: write what you know. As with everything in writing, it starts with observation. Pay attention to how people are. It's a strange thing to say, but you almost have to become an amateur phycologist with a dash of sociology in there for good measure. Why does your friend have such an attachment to that part of the beach? Why can't you sister listen to that song all the way through anymore? How does your grandfather's taste for only that one brand of Irish whiskey play into who he is as a person? Every little interest we have, everything we cherish, all the memories, all the places and people, it all means something. It all weaves with each other to create the people we are. It's not just about knowing someone's interests; it's knowing the reason behind those interests. That reason, hiding behind the curtain of a person's tastes, is the real them.
And for your character, you should know them more than they know themselves.
To get there, it takes a relationship. The personality of your character lives inside your imagination, and when you bring that swirl of creation down onto the page, you are entering a relationship with that person. With that comes the learning process. We are constantly learning about ourselves, let alone the other people in our lives. There are surprises along the way, and writing a person is no different. As you unfold the story you are creating, allow for the characters to speak back to you. Maybe you knew exactly how someone was in your head, but now that they are encountering the events you dreamt of, it's pushing them in unexpected directions. Let it happen. That's the beauty of the first draft. It's there to allow that experimentation. You can always go back.
This isn't to say that you should start that adventure without an initial foundation. Your characters will be complete and utter messes, like a bunch of Jr Highers constantly figuring themselves out, if you don't have some direction. Don't stick so rigidly that you can't allow for your characters to change and grow, though. That is, after all, what you want all of your characters to do.
When a character becomes something more than just the accumulated things they stand for and like, the audience begins to connect. This is absolutely key to having a story that remains with a reader long after the book is finished and back up on the shelf. When the characters become something the reader connects and sympathizes with, they become a link between the world you have created and the real one. This is the transformative power of a great character: To travel from your mind, onto paper, into someone else's imagination to live there like a friend they can't be separated from. A connection like this, well, this is why we write, isn't it?
This doesn't mean all of the cards have to be out on the table with your main character being completely transparent. The dots need to be able to be connected, though, and you can leave the rest in some mystery. Some of the most intriguing characters are left in partial darkness, even by the end of a story. But the audience needs to be able to make educated theories, based on what they do know about the character. Some story elements even revolve around the audience being left in the dark for at least part of the journey. I'm still dying to know who the hell Rey's parents are! You just watch, The Last Jedi will still not tell us, either. (A Kenobi somehow, just so you know).
It isn't just about the protagonist and company. This whole sympathy thing becomes fascinating when you do it with the antagonist(s). When we see some layer of complexity with the antagonist, that's when you go from having generic evil, to a character, and finally a person. Because the bad guys and gals have dreams too, they have hopes, they have reasons for what they are doing. The more the reader can see from a sympathetic angle why they are the way that they are, the deeper the character will be. It doesn't mean the reader has to agree with what they are doing, but it drives connection when the reader can see how the character came to this point. The audience can place themselves in their shoes, wondering what decisions they would have made. Would the reader have ended up just like the biggest obstacle to the protagonist who they also love?
That's when your characters are something more; when the reader likes people on both sides of the conflict or even blur who is right and wrong altogether. What instantly comes to mind for me (spoilers for season 4 Game of Thrones) is the Hound and Breanne. Here are two characters we both like, well I sure did anyway. Both determined in their own ways. Both strong physically and emotionally. Both grade "A" badasses. Yet, they end up fighting in a brutal exchange, both doing what they think is right. There's a kind of respect they both have, and I don't think either hated the other, besides the fact the Hound pretty much hates everything, but I digress. I sat, watching them beat the crap out of each other, not knowing how I wanted it to end. I didn't want either to win or lose. I cared for both and wanted to see both of them back for more plot for them to trudge through. That's something special. That's excellent writing and character development.
Back in Pompeii, I looked down at the shells of real humans staring back up at me, through the empty hollows in their skulls, dusted in thick layers of ash and dirt, like new skin formed over everything that once was. I could see the shape, even the last bit of emotion on their faces where the skull was still hidden underneath the flash formed body. I could see just a glimpse of who they once were. A tiny slice of an extreme situation. One moment. Do not let your characters be frozen in our minds, only knowable in that one moment. The one story. Your characters lived lives before the story you tell. All of those memories should carry their weight into the time the reader gets to see.
Your characters are alive.