Good Stories, Day 4

I believe a good story must have three key ingredients.

Characters in motion. Characters who don’t have to say what they believe. Rather they act out their beliefs.

Theme that is significant, if not profound. A memorable story deals with universals, but not in a surface way.

Varied conflict. Sometimes intense, sometimes mild. Focused internally for a time, then externally. But always present.

Perhaps a look at these elements in more depth would be helpful.

Engaging characters—ones that are sympathetic, ones that have character qualities we admire, or ones who want something with which we can identify—are necessary to a novel, but story trumps all.

As a corollary, wonderful characters painted with skill are not enough to make a compelling novel. Characters readers love make the story, but they do not operate in a vacuum. Instead, having wonderful characters in the center of a storm gives readers a reason to worry and cheer and cry. Because of the characters, the conflict and its ramifications matter. The interesting, unique, unexpected, tense circumstances swirling around these characters then form a memorable story.

The symbiotic connection between plot (which is built upon conflict) and characters is essential, but the foundation is built on the theme. That being said, I’d like to start with a look at characters, but not just any characters. A good story must have characters who matter.

How does a writer go about creating a character readers will care about?

Entire writing instruction books have been written on this subject, but here are some things that I’ve come to believe are essential.

  • Strength with vulnerability. A character who is capable, admirable, winsome, but with a touch of weakness that makes him realistic but also endearing. It’s a bit like Clark Kent hiding inside Superman. Note, the reverse—a bit of Superman hiding inside Clark Kent—is not the kind of character readers typically love.
  • Independence. The protagonist isn’t a follower. He is generally the trendsetter, the leader, the catalyst. He sees the solution when no one else can, takes the path least trodden, faces the insurmountable odds when everyone else runs. She is the one who sets herself apart with her choice for a career or her choice to renounce her career. She’s willing to go it alone. Readers admire that courage.
  • Action. The main character must not exist to experience whatever befalls him. He must take the initiative, decide to engage his world, and, for right or wrong, make things happen. Along this line, she is self-aware. She knows she has weaknesses and wants to overcome them. In fact, much of what moves her to act is her desire to be better than she knows herself to be.

  • Perhaps a more detailed look at characters is warranted in the future. After all, what would a book be without them? 😉

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