Over the last several weeks, I've been looking at "What Makes a Great Story?" The first post in this series examined the importance of the first sentence or paragraph. The second post delved into hooking a reader by having a strong first chapter. Last week, in the third installment of the series, I looked into how an author's description defines a story's setting.

Today's post will consider the importance of a story's character(s).

I don’t care how many twists and turns you have in a story or how vivid your description is, without strong characters you’ve got nothing.

All stories are about people, even if you don’t realize it. Ask someone what their favorite movie or book is and I guarantee the character(s) play a large part in their opinion. No one says they like George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series because they like his ability to describe food and clothing. What makes the series so memorable are the characters. And the more relatable your characters, the better story will be.

Oddly enough, a perfect character is the worst thing you can have. Weaknesses, imperfections, quirks, and vices humanize a character and give us someone we can relate to. The reason why everyone cheers for the underdog is because at some point in our lives we’ve felt something similar. We can better understand someone as we watch them cope with problems involving love, family, work, honor, success, failure, past mistakes, future worries, and dragons because we’ve all been there. Well, maybe not the dragons part, but you get the idea.

It’s even possible to watch a despicable person make terrible decisions and still sympathize with them on some level if we understand their motives and feel their pain.

In fact, the more flawed a character is, the more we tend to love them. Staying with the George RR Martin theme from above, Jaime Lannister is a great example of this. Everyone hates the guy in the first couple of books, but then we see the story from his point of view. And we feel the same things that he feels while in some cases, watching him suffer. After some time, he becomes one of the best characters of the series (definitely one of my favorites). The transformation is handled so well that many authors call it “pulling a Jaime Lannister” when they try to duplicate the character’s growth in their own works.

One of the hardest things in storytelling is showing this development in character. The last thing you want your character to do is abruptly change. You can’t have the character pull a 180 from one chapter to the next. That’s not the way life works. Just use your own life as an example. Everyone has gone through pivotal moments that, looking back, helped define the person they are now. How long did it take for those events to fully change who you are? I’m willing to bet months and years (with several setbacks along the way), not hours or days.

A good book will show the character change little by little, evolving their personality from one thing to sometimes something completely different. The best writers out there can do this so deftly that the reader often doesn’t even notice it until they stop and remember where the story started. Writers such as Martin, Cook, Kearney, and Abercrombie are all capable of doing this within the fantasy genre.

Strong characters will help mask a minor plot hole, weak description, or, in some cases, even poor grammar. But a great plot, great description and perfect grammar will do little to strengthen a weak character.

Who is your favorite character and what do you like about him/her?

, , ,

One Response so far.

  1. Mike says:

    My favorite character right now is Jerry Jeff Walker. Alright, so he's not a character. I'm reading his autobiography, but his story is pretty incredible and very entertaining. Rocky also came to mind while I was reading this.

Leave a Reply