Character and plot form a seamless union—but of the two, I feel strongly that character is more important. Abandon the development of your hero and heroine, and your plot—no matter how brilliant—will be little more than cardboard and ash. Strike fire with fantastic characters, however, and even the simplest of plots will do. Speaking in general terms, of course.
There are two ways to approach this. First of all, is the character itself—the skeleton, the flesh, the soul of the man or woman (or creature) who will be inhabiting your story. In essence, details and facts.
But how you portray your character is just as important as his or her identity. A cardboard doll might look pretty, but ultimately, it’s still a flat piece of glossy paper that can’t stand up on its own. What you want—and what the reader needs—is flesh and blood. Like Frankenstein, your job is to take lightning and cold parts, and infuse them with a soul.
I’m a movie buff. You can learn a lot about storytelling from a really good film or television show: character and chemistry, and all those little moments. Timing, the importance of a look.
I recently watched two movies that drove this home—both of them miles apart in content and theme, each telling a story through characters so real, so delightful and otherwise engrossing, that the plot itself could go to hell—you would watch them in anything, just to see more of their lives.
I am, of course, referring to National Velvet and Aliens.
National Velvet, filmed in 1935 and starring a young Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney, is about “a twelve-year girl, Velvet Brown, living in Sewels in Sussex, England, who saves a horse from the knacker’s yard and trains it for the Grand National steeplechase, aided by her father’s hired hand, a young drifter, Mi Taylor. The fictional horse which Velvet Brown trained and rode in the National is called ‘The Pie.’ When she discovers that the Latvian jockey hired to ride the Pie doesn’t believe he can win, she disguises herself as a male jockey and rides the horse to victory.” (quoted from Wikipedia)
I love this movie for many different reasons, but as we’re talking characters, let me focus on one in particular: Mi Taylor.
Actually, let me digress for a moment, and discuss complexity.
A character is not complex simply because he’s a chain-smoking, cross-dressing, ex-Special Forces ninja from Mars—with a weakness for a blondes and the Garfield cartoon strip. Those are interesting facts, but they’re just that—facts.
Complexity is a different animal—and I firmly believe that the blood of complexity is rooted in emotions.
Emotions are complex. Emotions are the root of who we are, and why we do the things we do. Focus on the heart. Who burned your character? Who made them ache, and bleed? Who gave them joy? Who nurtured, who betrayed, who cut and then kissed and made it better? Who tried to break that heart you’re creating? Who put that heart back together?
Facts, yes—but emotional facts. A cat, for example, is window dressing. But the love for that cat is what makes someone interesting.
Take the character of Mi Taylor from National Velvet. You don’t know everything about him, except that he’s had a hard-knocks life. He doesn’t know much about his father, he’s got no home, the one thing he loved tossed him on his ass and scarred him so deeply he’s never recovered. He’s this close to becoming a criminal, but he pulls back from the edge. He’s straightforward, though. Not a push-over, a little belligerent.
And, as the viewer discovers, all he needs is a little kindness. Just a little, to make him question the darker path he’s going down.
Those are the facts—the wet, juicy, emotional facts. But you don’t learn all of this through a checklist attached to the character’s back. You aren’t told these things about Mi – but the movie conveys them, nonetheless. Actions speak louder than words. Responses to certain situations, no matter how small, can reveal mountains. No moment is wasted—not when Mi is eating a cracker at the side of the road, not when he’s giving Velvet a particular look when she’s swooning over her dreams, not when he touches a sick horse, or stands before the fireplace in a home where he is a stranger, or holds the family’s youngest son in his lap and tells him a story. Every moment means something. Every moment builds layers upon a character and enriches him—and that enrichment, that personality you weave upon a page, will tell you things, and point you in directions, that you never imagined you would go.
Plot-wise, that is. For the organic writer, living with your character—and having your character live—is the key to crafting a story. In life, after all, we are products of past experiences, as well as present fears and desires. We might be affected by the external events in our lives, but we are driven forward in our responses to them. The same is true while writing a book.
Aliens is another excellent example of subtle character building. Small touches. Small moments that add up to a lot. You’ve got Ripley, Newt, Hicks—the core of the movie, and its heart.
Let’s stick with Hicks for a moment: squad leader of the Colonial Marines. Again, nothing is wasted—not when you see his response to Ripley using the exosuit in the loading bay (revealing a sense of humor, and the burgeoning respect he has, not just for her, but for women, in general); or the picture in his locker, an oddly elegant black and white photograph of a woman sitting in a chair, seen from behind (far more subtle, more tasteful, than one might expect of him). He falls asleep during the drop to the planet while everyone else is freaking out—and yet that easy-going, laid-back quality disappears in an instant once the fight begins. He is respectful to the little girl, Newt—including her in defense planning—and while he abandons his own men for dead, when the child is taken by one of the aliens, he goes after her—he fights for her—nor does he discourage Ripley from going after the child herself, even if it means certain death for them all.
There’s more that I could point out—actions that reveal character—but I think you get the drift. He’s a complex man. He’s a rich character. You could follow him for years and still find undiscovered countries.
Remember, when you write, that you don’t have to hit people over the head. Make your revelations small. Build with delicious fragments. Choose the right moments. Everything counts in a book, and I don’t care how many pages you’ve got to work with.
Waste nothing. Every word, every sentence, is an opportunity to make a moment real for the reader. As a writer, that is a precious opportunity. You are responsible for a stranger’s time and focus, and you must make it worth something.
Let me address plot again, and how characters drive the story forward. For the organic writer, my guess is that this is largely instinctual. You follow your characters on the journey, and they reveal the path and destination.
Here’s an example. When I first watched National Velvet, I was haunted by Velvet Brown’s future. When she grew up, what would she do with her life? I knew it would have something to do with horses, because that’s a huge part of her character.
My fantasy—if I were to write the sequel—would have Mi Taylor disappearing for five or six years—in that time making something of himself. Because he’s that kind of man, the kind of character who takes advantage of opportunities, and who would never dream of settling down without a stake, something to offer a woman (yes, I would write a romantic sequel…sue me).
So maybe Mi becomes a trainer—gets his own stable—and when it’s time he goes back to Sewels, ostensibly to ask for Pie as part of a breeding program—but also to find Velvet again and see what has happened to her. That would be in character, too—his curiosity, his loneliness, his pride and desire to show off what he has accomplished.
Velvet, of course, is doing great. She is still heavily involved with horses. It’s a match made in Heaven. And so what if the boys in town are vying for her attention? Or maybe one in particular who has caught her eye? Once Mi comes back into her life, who could ever compare to the one person who believed in her—a mere kid—when no one else would? Who trusted her, kept faith with her, and helped make her dreams come true?
And sure, for Mi there have been women over the years. But all of them would have seemed shallow in comparison, without that gutsy innocent passion that was so all-encompassing that this slip of a girl defied everyone to make her dream come true. And his dream, as well. It was her passion for a crazy dream that healed him, after all. She made him a new man, and set him on an upright path.
See? There’s a plot in there. But it’s all because of the characters.
I guess that’s intuitive. If I’m stating the obvious, forgive me. But what I’m trying to say, in as many ways as I can, is that you can’t skimp on the people in your book. Build from the heart up. Build the heart before the skeleton.
Questions are an easy way to do this. I stated some earlier, but I’ll repeat them again:
Who burned your character? Who made them ache, and bleed? Who gave them joy? Who nurtured, who betrayed, who cut and then kissed and made it better? Who tried to break that heart you’re creating? Who put that heart back together?
These are the broad emotional strokes. If you want to make a list of specifics—favorite foods, movies, books, and so on—do so, by all means. But as with the photograph in Hick’s locker, or (leaving National Velvet for a moment) the hat that Indiana Jones wears all the time (given to him, if you recall, but a fellow adventurer), make those details worth something. Make them meaty, adding to the complexity of the character.
But again, don’t forget the heart. You’ve got nothing without some heart.
So, here’s another exercise in character—but also plot. Hopefully it will be fun, and again, don’t feel obligated to post the results. This is for you alone.
As I did with National Velvet, take some favorite characters you’re dying to see more of—and then write their sequels, or a scene from their lives. Let’s stick with movies and television for the purposes of this exercise.
Personally, I always wanted a happy ending for Ripley, Hicks, and Newt. I wanted a happy ending for Catherine and Vincent from Beauty and the Beast—and don’t get me started about the end of Roman Holiday, starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. I’m still mad that Firefly didn’t last past 13 episodes (not including the movie).
You don’t have to write an actual story, just a summary of what you think would happen next, based on the characters themselves: how you think they would react to a particular situation; the end of the world, for example, or a chance meeting. Take one moment, and let the characters drive the plot forward.
The point of this is to have fun. But also to loosen yourself up. Grease those character-building muscles. Practice showing and not telling. It’s like playing with a coloring book: the lines are there, but you can go outside them, or paint them any way you want. It’s just practice. It’s just experimentation with different colors, and how those colors change the look of an established picture.
I’m giving away iTunes downloads of National Velvet and Aliens. Leave a comment to be entered. I’ll draw the lucky name on Friday.