Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Importance of Being Human

We’ve been talking a fair bit about characters lately. A good topic as your character can make or break your book.

The thing is, it is easy to forget what character really means. A character is a person. Well, duh, you might say. But we writers tend to forget this basic truth and think of a character as a bundle of traits, a list of physical appearances, little quirks that make them unique, and so on. We get hung up on this, and suddenly the character becomes flat, predictable in his “uniqueness”, because something is suddenly missing. Usually it is the human factor. At the core, a character is simply a person.

As a species we are more alike than different. Most of us want the same things: love, security, companionship, health, and happiness. We are afraid, we get angry, etc. There is a saying that the villain is the hero of his own story. Because most people believe they are in the right. We operate under our own truths. It is rare that a person will simply let others live and let live. We want people to see things our way. Usually that means debate, discussion, an attempt to persuade others into coming round to our truths. In the case of some extreme individuals, force is the method of choice. (g) This all sounds sinister but really, it’s not. We don’t do it (usually) with ill intent. It's usually a mode of self-protection because we've been taught that being wrong is bad. We are supposed to be right. But what all that really means, though, is that there will be times when we are right and we are wrong. Because we can’t all be right all of the time (g)

And what THAT means, is that a real character cannot always be in the right. Even the hero. A hero that is never wrong isn’t a real person. It means too that even the villain will have desires that are valid. Even if his outward desires seem unfathomable to the rest of us. Because a villain that is never right is just as unrealistic.

To me, what makes a character compelling is that we understand them, we identify with them. And the simplest way to achieve that is to let your character have these base human needs and failings. In other words, yes, you character can have a lofty goal –say, save the world, but at the end of the day, what she really wants are the same things we all want. Similarly, while your character may be larger than life, kick ass, extraordinary, he is also, on occasion, a pain in the butt, wrong when he thinks he’s right, needy when he believes his strong… you get the idea.

To sum up: (g) if we see something of ourselves in a character, a basic humanness that we instinctively identify with, we will be entranced, and root for them.


  1. Very true, Kristen. A character who is never wrong, always makes the right choices, always is in the right ... well, that's just plain boring.

    Picking up a book, we, the readers, want to see someone struggle, see someone battle through complexities and come out the other side, one way or the other ... otherwise, and invariably, the book hits the wall pretty damn fast. And why? And we all closet psychos, getting a kick out of another's suffering?

    Nup (well, mostly). It's more that these stories echo the frailties of the human existence, speak a truth with which we can all identify and learn from, and I think there's a comfort in that.

  2. Great post, Kristen! This is why plotting out characters in advance has never worked for me. I did it once. I still have pages of notes for a girl called Katherine Allison Randall (this was before I'd read Outlander; I was going for an English name!), her job, her schooling, her friends, her habits, her preferences, what have you.
    I've never written a single word of story about her.

  3. Good point Kristen, my favorite heroes are the flawed ones. I have a soft spot for them.