Wednesday, December 17, 2014
Exploring Personality: Part Thirteen -- What It All Means
If you could have any car you wanted, any car at all, and you could afford to maintain and drive it, what kind of car would you have? That car, that bright and shiny car with the engine that purrs, that's your plot. But guess what; that car isn't going anywhere without a driver, the driver being your protagonist. And it doesn't matter how cool the car is if your protagonist is a total ass (ass... now that's a word I think I need to use more often; it's so versatile) or completely stupid (remember, stupid is not a personality type). Have you ever been in a car with a stupid driver (and I don't mean a bad driver, although a stupid driver is also a bad driver)? It's not something you ever want to do again.
See, it doesn't matter how good (or great) your plot is if you have a protagonist that doesn't work on some level; however, you can have even a junker if your protagonist is someone your readers want to hang out with. As long as the car isn't going to literally fall apart around your readers (or explode), you can get away with a lot if you have good, engaging characters. Which is not to say that I believe characters are more important than plot... except that they kind of are. People (readers) are going to talk about your characters way more (in a general sense) than they are ever going to talk about how cool your dashboard is. Or your steering wheel. Or the heated, leather seats. Okay, they might talk about that, especially if it's cold out. But, in the end, for most readers, it all boils down to the characters.
Which is why it's so important to understand how people are different from each other and, more importantly, how they are different from you, the author. It's a common thing to ask yourself, "What would I do in this situation?" but you're going to end up with only characters who act just like you if that's all you ever do. That's okay once, maybe twice, but, eventually, your readers will get tired of books filled with just one character: you. What you need is for Bob to act like Bob and Jane to act like Jane and Fred to act like Fred and Gortuka from planet Xenon to not act human at all.
I think the only real way to make characters distinct, to make them individuals as opposed to paper dolls, is to make those characterization decisions before you start writing. You ask yourself the question, "What kind of person is Bob? What kind of person is Jane?" And "What kind of... thing is Gortuka?" If you know that stuff before you go in, you can make informed decisions about how your characters act. That way, if you get to a point in your story where someone needs to push the red button, you can have Bob do it, because you know that Bob is the one that can't resist being told not to do something whereas Jane and Fred do what they're told and it would be breaking character for one them to say, "You know what, I'm going to push the red button even though my boss said not to."
I know I frequently come off as someone who gets nit-picky over the details (plot stuff) but, honestly, that stuff only grabs my attention when the characters aren't engaging. It's like being involved in a conversation with someone at a party. If the conversation is good, your attention will be focused on the character but, if the conversation is inane, your gaze starts to wander, and you start to pick up the details of the plot you're in. If that is also lacking (like all the plants are dead or there's a big crack in the ceiling or there are cockroaches crawling on the furniture), the whole thing falls apart, and you want to go home. Or quit reading. Whatever the case may be.
At any rate, for those of you out there who are authors, I hope this series has given some perspective on how to make characters more "real" and more complex and, yet, an insight into why not every character will make the same stupid mistake you might need to happen to move the plot along. For instance, an Eight (the Boss) is never going to act like a Four (the Individualist) and have that heart-to-heart talk about how special he really is if only you would see it. That's just never going to happen.
And, maybe, all of this will enable some of you to see more of whom you are, so you can separate out yourself from your characters. That, I think, is the biggest trap writers fall into. So don't ask, "What would I do if a ravenous slug were crawling up my leg?" Ask, "What would Bob do if a ravenous slug was crawling up his leg?" Answer: He would scream bloody murder and run to Jane to save him.