The Narcissism of Us – Why Character is Essential to Story
Humans are narcissistic creatures, don’t you think?
We love to hear about ourselves: about our exploits, our loves and passions, our failures, our darkest fears and deepest desires. This holds true across history, cultures, generations and genders. And our narcissism finds perfect expression through story.
Every story ever told – in whatever form: rock art, song, dance, oral tales, visual or written – is about us. Even those stories that ostensibly are about other species that inhabit this planet, or other planets, or eras, realities, planes of existence etc. etc. are really about us; about what it means to be human. Yes, the longing of a robot; the dark lusts of a vampire; the heroism of a dog; the butchery of a ghoulish entity; the rage of an alien mother — all about US!
And it is for this reason I would suggest that character is the most important element in any story.
The Living Heart of Story:
I’ve read a lot of stories by emerging writers over the years and, with the rare exception, my main comment to these writers about their work is ‘develop your characters’; show the reader more about who they are and what is motivating them. The reason for this suggestion is simple:
Characters are the story.
Plot events in a story are meaningless unless they are tied implicitly to a character and their experience of, or reaction to, those events. A setting is a one-dimensional backdrop until a character moves through, or engages with, a location or environment. Dialogue only makes sense in relation to character and, while we can discover theme in all elements of story, it is character that works hardest to convey the thematic preoccupations of a story to the reader.
The centrality of character to story is not hard to work out. Aside from being narcissistic, we humans are also voyeurs – we love to watch and experience, vicariously, the myriad of situation offered by our world – and this, too, is not hard to understand: we want to empathise.
Empathy is what connects a reader to the story. The more a reader can empathise (positively or negatively) with a character, the more memorable that story will be, and it is for this reason I suggest writers work hard on their characters.
I have a confession to make: I loathe the film Wolf of Wall Street. Not because of the acting (which was very good) but because the characters are so thoroughly despicable and morally corrupt that my empathetic reaction to them is loathing. I will never watch this film again, but I will also never forget the characters. At the other end of the spectrum are, well, dozens of characters whom I have loved and cherished, whom I have cheered for and cried for, or whom I have mourned like old friends lost. What all of these characters have in common is they are living, breathing, feeling people, who experience life and reflect something about the human condition.
A Recipe for Creating Empathetic Characters:
1 pinch of extraordinary
1 spoonful of balance
1 dash of consistency
2 tablespoons of knowledge
1. A long time ago, I read a snippet of advice from Stephen King, which went something like take an extraordinary event, people it with ordinary folk, and see how they react. Their reaction, of course, becomes the story. A good example of this advice at work occurs in House of Stairs by William Sleator, which is the story of five ordinary teenagers who wake to find themselves in a literal house of stairs. Their struggle to find out how they came to be there and what they need to do to escape transforms them from average people into extraordinary people. A more contemporary example of this would be Suzanne Collin’s, The Hunger Games – Katniss Everdeen is an average girl (or is she?) who, through her participation in the Hunger Games, becomes extraordinary.
Ordinary people in ordinary circumstances are not interesting to a reader. As Sol Sein points out:
‘Readers don’t want to pay money in order to spend twelve hours in the company of someone who is just like their neighbour. They are attracted by differentness.’
Stein, S. 1999, How to Grow a Novel, p. 67
This ‘differentness’ doesn’t have to be extreme but it does need to be something more than what the reader may expect from their own experiences.
Note: ‘extra ordinariness’ extends to what you show the reader about the character’s physicality. Avoid the ordinary. Unless there is a specific and intentional reason to mention a character’s hair colour, eye colour, height, weight, age – don’t. These are the least interesting aspects of a character. Show the reader something extra-ordinary about them: the tattoo they’re hiding from everyone; the scars on their forearms; the way they wear their hair in a fifties beehive (and why); their gangsta strut… anything that will give the reader an insight into who they are. If the banal aspects of appearance must be used, do it for a reason – to emphasis the character’s low esteem, or narcissism, or to satirise (Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut Jr is a great example of this).
2. Human beings are complex and our characters need to reflect this complexity. No character should be all good, or all bad, because such characters feel ‘wrong’ to a reader. Following the principle of Yin and Yang, there must be a little dark in the light, and little light in the dark for our characters to feel human. This is what makes them rounded. Without this balance, characters are flat and tend to stymie empathy.
Lack detail & are one dimensional.
Are stereotypical & predictable.
Tend not to change or surprise.
Tend to represent one quality or idea.
Round characters, on the other hand, are:
Detailed & multi-layered.
Have admirable qualities & flaws.
Represent a range of ideas.
Face challenges & adversity.
Are complex & unpredictable.
Show change & growth.
As E.M. Forster notes:
‘The test of a round character is whether it surprises in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat. If it does not convince, it is a flat pretending to be round. [A round character] has the incalculability of life about it…’
‘Flat and Round Characters’, E.M. Forster, p. 41’
Round characters are the ones that readers love or loathe; they are the ones that stir our imaginations and stay with us long after we finish their story.
3. One of the best examples of character consistency I’ve read is Lamb to the Slaughter by Roald Dahl. In this tale, the main character, Mary Maloney, is a delightfully complex character who appears to be a dotting, placid, loving wife at the start of the story before making an apparent about-face to become a cold, conniving survivor of the circumstances thrust upon her. This change can come as quite a shock to the reader, until they look closely at Mary’s behaviour across the breadth of the story. Then we discover that Mary has always been a meticulous, passive-aggressive manipulator.
Mary’s underlying consistency is what makes her a successful character because she reflects the reality of human nature. This doesn’t mean our characters won’t do the unexpected – Mary certainly does – but that whatever characteristic we endow our characters with need to inform their behaviour during the course of their story, just as the characteristic we are endowed with during our lives define us and our response to the circumstances we encounter.
4. To avoid the ordinary and create round characters, who are interesting, surprising and yet consistent, we need to get to know them, personally.
One of the simplest ways to do this is to create a character biography (there are many templates for this on the Web). A bio could be a simple list of the attributes we associate with a character for a particular story. Or it could be an extravagant exploration of the character and their history, covering family, education, relationships, friendships, employment, religion, travels, health and so on. Or it could be somewhere in between these two. It depends on how much work you’re willing to put into your character.
Getting to know your characters deeply will assist in working out how they will respond in any given situation because, like us, characters are influenced by their experiences. And, like us, nothing that happens to them, happens in isolation. They have a timeline of events behind them. Knowing this timeline allows us to write authentically about our characters. Of course, this knowledge is not something we would necessarily share with our reader, but they will certainly sense the depth in our characters and connect with them all the more for it.
Shake and Bake:
Working with character is one of the most satisfying aspects of writing. Astute writers, I believe, take the time to think about and get to know their characters so they can convey authentic experiences, which resonate and satisfy the narcissist, the voyeur, and the all too human empathetic reader.