I remember this was indirectly brought up somewhere (possibly on one of the writing forums I frequent). Personally, I’m an intuitive writer. I don’t plan beforehand, nor intentionally create symbolism; I just let the story unfold in my mind and tell it how it is. However, an understanding of writing techniques and features (as well as how they can be used effectively) allows for a subconscious/conscious (depending on what kind of writer you are) influence on your writing ability.
This post is about characters. Now, there’s a lot to characters. In certain story types, they are the driver of events. They are also the hub of activity, the unforgettable personality and the wishful self-insert. This post will focus on the role of the character(s).
Let me elaborate. Every character has to have some sort of personality (or it’s just a boring, two-dimensional name that gets thrown around in a story). There are two ways to achieve personality. The first (my favourite and the one I excel at) is the deep, complex personality that encompasses a wide scope of emotions and growth. The second is a personality that accentuates certain personality traits. While it would seem the former is the better choice, the latter is the one that is used most frequently, particularly in visual media (TV, films, etc.).
Let’s look at an example to make sense of what I’m saying. Take The Big Bang Theory, for example. Obviously, each character is a “person” with a wide range of emotions, but did you ever stop to think what their main role as a character is? Howard is the sexually frustrated, Rajesh is the inability to talk to women, Sheldon is the quirky smart and full of facts, and Leonard is the all-rounder who finds himself caught on that one special girl. Sound familiar? Each one of these characters represent a part of most people (guys). Because of this setup, the audience always has somebody to relate to – and this relation is important. Imagine, instead, that the entire cast was four Sheldons. Pure, obnoxious, in-your-face intelligent, and nobody to call him out on the weird stuff he does. Well, it would be a weird show. The audience would sit there and listen to a list of facts and snide remarks. Definitely not a successful formula.
Now think of any other TV show and I guarantee that you could do the same thing – identify a certain characteristic that is personified by one character.
So, what does this tell us? First, and most important, (good) characters must have something about them that the audience can relate to. If one single character doesn’t have it, then somewhere in the cast there has to be at least one that serves as a reference point. This reference point is what we judge everything by and what enables us to make sense of what’s occurring in the story. Without a reference point, the entire story is just an alien series of events with unintelligible interactions between strangers. The reason why option two (a full cast with each character personifying some personality trait) is more popular is because it’s much easier to pull off. When you get tired of one aspect, you can instantly reconnect with another. No one wants to hear complaints about how they can’t get girls all day, so when we’ve had enough of that, the story switches to something else. When you try to do this with option one (a single main character with a personality so complex that it can only be labelled “realistic”) you need to find that perfect balance between every aspect of the character’s personality. Further, it is very difficult to focus on more than a few main themes, so you tend to be limited towards some sort of overarching moral. If you do go for this method, the good ones to focus on are the ones that never fail to please society (perseverance under pressure, underdog story, selfless heroics, etc.).
Growth is another thing entirely. It’s very difficult to capture effectively and I wouldn’t recommend it to amateurs. I may do a post on it in the future.
So, what should you take away from this? Just keep in mind that your characters can’t just be super-perfect-overpowered (like a Mary/Gary Sue), nor can they just be a collection of “cool” one-liners and two-dimensional reactions to their surroundings. They need something about them that the audience can relate to – a reference point – and they need to assume a role (some aspect of the human psyche).