Friday, June 18, 2010

Of Good Character

Much of the talk this week has been about characters, and I agree with John - they are fundamentally important to the process of storytelling. Because no matter how good your plot is, if your readers are not emotionally invested in your characters you will never do it justice.

I watched a movie the other night, a thriller. It was a clever, well-constructed plot, but in the end it didn’t work for me because I didn’t care what happened to the characters. I was not involved with them in any way.

A good writer engages his or her readers by making them care about the characters - whether they love them, hate them, fear them, or fear for them, it is that involvement that brings the story to life.

I worked as a TV story-editor in serial drama in the UK during the 1980s. The show I worked on was producing 104x30-minute episodes per year. It was a marathon. Gruelling. Where on earth did I find the story material to fill all that airtime? Simple. All the stories came out of character. I was fortunate, because we had a cast of twenty-five, so there was a good range of age, sex, and sexual preference to choose from. Characters came from various backgrounds, and were involved in diverse, sometimes complex, relationships.

I learned early on that you couldn’t impose stories on characters. Some writers at story conference believed that you could dream up any story, exploit any theme, and superimpose it on your existing characters. That doesn’t work. All you do is distort characters to fit stories. But it doesn’t mean you can’t do the story, or exploit the theme. You just have to create the right characters to make it work.

In television that is not always easy, because you are restricted by cost. But novelists have the freedom to create as many characters as they like, and take them anywhere they choose. So in theory the novelist is better off. Sometimes, though, working within budgetary restrictions exercises the imagination to greater effect, and sometimes the novelist can be spoiled by choice.

It seems to me that by bringing your characters into tight focus, and limiting their number, you will draw your readers into involvement with your story, and make it an experience they will want to repeat.

For me, storytelling begins and ends with characters.

A footnote: I wrote my contribution to this blog last week from the crime writing festival at Le Havre in France, having driven fifteen hours over two days to get there. If it had been in my mind to wonder what on earth I was doing it for, the thought was quickly banished. Because my book, “L’├«les des chasseurs d’oiseaux”, won the 2010 Prix des Lecteurs (the Ancres Noires book festival’s “Readers’ Prize”) in competition with twenty other writers. The book’s English title is “The Blackhouse”, and it will be published all over Europe and in the UK early next year.


John Corrigan said...

Congrats on the award. And great post. I am teaching a ten-day fiction-writing course starting Sunday and plan to have students read these character posts.
Again, congrats!

Rick Blechta said...


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