Character Counts

Quick, define Batman in one sentence. Now sum up Spider-Man in a short phrase. Now do the same for Spider Jerusalem. Iím willing to bet that wasnít any trouble at all.

Why not? Because of character.

Now think of the best Spider-Man or Batman or Transmetropolitan story youíve read. It probably built on that foundational character description or perhaps twisted it off in a unique direction.

Storytelling begins and ends with character, and it has lots of character sprinkled throughout. Just ask most any new writer to tell you about their latest story, and see if he or she doesnít start prattling off plot points to you instead. Why? Because weíve bought into the fallacy that plot is story. But story is so much bigger than mere plot alone. Itís the symbiosis between plot and character, and failure on either point will result in a weaker story. Think about it. You can keep the same basic plot outline, drop in a different character, and youíve suddenly got a completely different story.

For example, imagine:

The new character begins to reshape the plot. Plot should always be about character. Character should always help direct the plot. If you find that you can use characters interchangeably in your plots, then perhaps you donít know your characters well enough.

Some unofficial definitions to keep us on the same page:

Plot: what your characters do

Character: who your characters are

Story: the mysterious, magical something that happens when plot and character get together and raise a family

Self, meet Mr. and Ms. Character

How well do you know the characters youíre writing about? What are their birthdays? Favorite colors? First jobs? How do they feel about their parents? Are they book-smart or people-smart? If you donít know these kinds of things about them, I dare say you donít really have a character at all. You have a caricature instead.

Many beginning writers make the mistake of assuming that for short stories, such as anthology pieces, they donít have to know as much about the characters because they only have to fill up 6-10 pages with a story. If anything, the opposite is true. Because you have so few pages to make a reader care about your characters, you have to work even harder at it and know even more about them. In longer, ongoing stories you may sometimes have the luxury of developing and revealing character as you go (though you still shouldnít stray too far from the foundational point of who your character is), but in short, break-in pieces, you had better have a solid understanding up front of who your protagonists and antagonists are.

More definitions:

Protagonist: the character the story is about

Antagonist: the character who keeps getting in the way of the protagonist getting what he, she, or it wants

Here are a few suggestions for helping you ďfill in the blanksĒ on your characters:

Bleeding your characters onto the page

Now that youíve done all the hard work of knowing what your characters want and who they are, realize that youíll never get it all into your story. Never. The more you understand them and know who they are, the more youíll always want to put that one extra tidbit into a story. Resist that urge to overstuff your story.

But how do you put their character into the story?

1. Character begins with setting. Where is your character in this story? How does he or she feel about being there?

2. Character continues with action. What do they actually do, both pivotal and incidental actions?

3. Character is revealed by dialogue or the lack of it. Donít forget that silence is a way of speaking too.

4. And finally, characterization can be strengthened when your players do something uncharacteristic. When a shy child stands up to the villain or a heroic figure runs away from a fight, it reveals something new and unexpected about them. It defies the one-dimensional characterization with which comics are often labeled.

Remember, these are only suggestions, not rules. There is not right or wrong way to develop your characters. These are just some of the things Iíve tried that have helped me in both prose and comics writing. The only wrong approach Iíve found is not to consider your characters at all.

Now itís your turn. Look at the latest story youíve been working on. See where your characters live and breathe for you. Then find where they donít and do what it takes to beef up their character.