We want our characters to reach off the page and grip our readers by the heart strings. We want them to pluck those strings until the reader laughs, cries, or feels something profound. It’s essential. No matter how amazing your conflict, it is only as interesting as the characters who navigate it (my opinion). We want heroes, villains, side kicks, and love interests. But we want more than that. We want conflicted characters. Imperfect beings who are struggling to overcome both internal and external issues.
When we talk about heroes and villains what we are talking about are archetypes. Many of you already know, but an archetype is just a fancy way of lumping our written characters into categories (i.e. hero, villain, love interest, mentor, side kick, care taker). Here is a great article to get your gears moving if you are unfamiliar with the term. The image you see, 5 Characters Who Should Be in Your Story, is borrowed from that article.
So now that we have that cleared up and we have decided on what characters we will write – how do we make them unique and not seem trite? What dimension can we add to make them break the blueprint and sing? It’s a challenge many of us face.
The number one tip is to read, and read a lot. Not just desserts (fiction of your genre) but greens as well (non-fiction books about writing). You can’t avoid falling into the trap of writing a character blueprint that is overused, if you don’t know it has been. Put another way, you can’t alter the blueprint if you don’t know what it looks like.
We see it over and over again in movies and writing. The alcoholic hero. The mentally disturbed hero. The hero who doesn’t know he/she is a hero. The weakling hero who finds their inner strength. Can it work? Absolutely it can. If you can provide a new take on an old classic, you win the prize. Can it fail? It sure can. If you do the same old thing, but don’t find a way to make it unique, people are going to let you know when the reviews start blowing in.
While I’m not an expert in every genre (just a novice in my own) I do a fair amount of reading in the way of greens. Here are some concepts and works you might consider to round out your diet and help you redraw the blueprint.
My book suggestion would be, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell. The book examines the hero throughout history as well as the mythology surrounding them. It is well written, and honestly, almost a spiritual experience. While some of the sections are pretty challenging to read, a bulk of the book inspires. Just go to the Amazon or GoodReads reviews section and see what people are writing. This book has literally saved peoples lives (not their writing lives, like literally, their lives).
Flipping through my copy here, this is the first quote (of many) I highlighted. “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man” (p. 23).
My next breadcrumb would be to check out Jungian archetypes. This method of thinking about character was developed by psychologist Carl Gustav Jung. His idea was simple – people the world over believe in universal types of characters whether we are aware of it or not. He argues that these archetypal perspectives are hardwired right into our brains. That’s my kind of weird science!
Most of my Jungian research (I like how that sounds) has been internet based. If you have found a solid book regarding it I would love to hear about it.
With those two concepts in the bag, let’s take a moment to jam out with this idea. It is my belief that many writers focus much of their attention on one or two characters (traditionally their protagonist and antagonist). What they fail to realize is all of the other characters around them are what makes the book come to life.
If we can swallow that idea and accept it, then the solution becomes more clear. Treat each and every character in your book like they are the main character. Like they are the most important person in the book. Chuck Wendig put it best in his book, The Kick-Ass Writer, “Your supporting character’s shouldn’t act like supporting characters. They have full lives in which they are totally invested and where they are the protagonist. They’re not puppets for fiction. They don’t know they’re not the heroes” (p. 91).
Don’t treat your characters like puppets. You are their creator, give them the best opportunity available in your story. When you do this, you will be amazed at how your protagonist gains depth and feeling. You will then turn a blueprint, into a fingerprint.
That’s it for today. Do you have any tools you use to help bolster your blueprint? Do you have a method you employ that has been especially fruitful? I would love to hear about it. I’m always looking to add more sharpened pencils to my toolbox. Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!