Perhaps nothing is more important for a novelist than to know his characters, and this fact is true regardless if the story is “plot driven” or “character driven.” In reality, the difference between those two types of stories is dependent upon the type of conflict that dominates the story–external or internal.
Clearly a story dealing primarily with a character’s internal flaw or need will depend upon knowing how that character is wired. But those stories aren’t the only ones that require an author to know his characters.
A story with external conflict front and center will have the kinds of events that deal with attempts to overcome this outside problem. Different characters will go about trying to solve the problems that confront them in different ways. Hence, an author needs to know what type of person he’s creating.
Take for example the main character in the TV show White Collar. He is a criminal working as a consultant to the FBI in order to stay out of prison. His methods of “consulting” vary a great deal from the detectives in a show like NCSI: Los Angeles.
He does what he does best–con, break and enter, forge, blackmail, things those on the legal side of the law can’t do. But is he nothing but a user? Something about him makes viewers care for him and cheer for him to turn from his criminal past.
Episode after episode, there is a criminal who needs to be caught, and our hero must work on behalf of the law by using his skills as a criminal. At the same time he has his own mysterious goals which sometimes put his actions on behalf of the FBI on a collision course with his actions meant to achieve his own ends.
The only way the plots for this show can work is if the writers know the character. What motivates him? What secret is he withholding from his handler?
When characters are involved, relationships develop. But relationships hinge on the inner qualities of each person. An author, therefore, must know how her character will relate to the various people in her story.
Will a teen trust her new boyfriend or be suspicious of his intentions? Will a manager hire a yes-man for his assistant or will he find the best go-getter he can who might end up jumping ahead of him for promotion? Will a grandmother lie to protect her grandson from the policeman who accuses him of stealing from their neighbor or will she tell the truth, knowing he’ll be taken from her and put into the juvenile system?
In short, who are these people in your story? Not, what color eyes they have or how old they are, but what will they do when life turns against them, and why?
What makes them tick and how do they respond when they receive an expensive gift, learn they have cancer, watch their team win the Super Bowl, run into the boss who fired them?
As Art Holcomb said in a guest post at StoryFix, “We’re all predictably different . . . and so must our characters be.”
Unless an author intentionally crafts them to be different, however, they well might end up being stereotypical teens, or managers, or grandmothers. But if they are different, even quirky, they must have a believable reason for being different from the average person in their same shoes.
What separates them from others and why?
The better an author knows her characters, the deeper the story and the more impact it can have on readers.