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Characters And Story, by Andy Briggs

The Savage Lands by Andy Briggs

Your characters are one of the most vital components in a story. There has been a lot written about characterisation. Whether your main character is a pirate, an astronaut, a teenager or a dog they will be the focal point around which your story will unfold. The conduit between the page and your reader.

The problem here is that people then automatically write a story from a first person perspective. That is absolutely fine and a wonderful way in which to tell a story, but some writers have used this device to create an emotional bond between the reader and the character at the expense of the story. With a first person perspective you don’t necessarily need to worry about what the other characters are doing at any one given time because you are not going to cut away to them. Fine. However, there is a tendency for some of these stories to have the most wafer thin plots because the author thinks the character is more interesting.

I have had many discussions with professional storytellers who assert that characters are the most important things in a story. I have listened, in stunned disbelief, when they say, as long as you have interesting characters, interesting stories will unfold. I have even seen this written in books that allege to teach writing. It doesn’t matter how fleshed out your character is, without an interesting story they are nothing.

Imagine, Albert Einstein, Elvis and the Pope are sitting in a room. Three strong characters about whom entire volumes have been written. Now imagine none of them can think of anything interesting to say to one another, and imagine nothing happens to the room they’re in. Nobody else enters. You just have three amazingly interesting people doing zip.

The story is what drives your characters to walk, talk and be. People don’t watch the news because they think the teenager running down the street chased by a police helicopter is an interesting character. They tune in to find out what the story is; what led to this moment. During this process we find out about our character – is he a murderer? A thief? We now stick with the story because of the characters. But wait, something else has been discovered: he had left a bomb in his house. The story is re-engaging with us and may well bring in other intriguing characters to help it along.

Back to Einstein and co. The room they are in could be spinning through time and space but without a character to witness and interact with the momentous events outside, we still have no story.

What we have here is a delicate balance: Interesting characters in an interesting story. Like yin and yang they propel your story to the bitter end together.

This brings me on to another bugbear of mine. Character arcs. The notion that a character has to go on an educational or spiritual journey through the story. That they must end up as different people by the end of the story, and through this, we need to learn about their backstory: what happened in the past to shape them into the person they are today. That is not true for all stories.

There are numerous characters who have started with one opinion and finished the story as a whole new person – Ebenezer Scrooge being the first example that pops to mind. Likewise, there are fantastic characters who are perceived as heroes but have broken all the rules. Let me jump from literature to film – it’s still the art of storytelling. Indiana Jones is a modern iconic hero. Go away and watch the first movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. I’ll wait for you. What a hero, eh?

He starts the story losing the golden idol to his rival. Then he searches for the Ark of the Covenant, loses his leading lady, finds the Ark, loses the Ark, finds the girl, finds the Ark – then loses both the girl and the Ark. Then ends the movie tied to a pole as all the bad guys are killed. He gets the Ark back. Oh, and in the story’s coda, he loses the Ark again. I present to you Indiana Jones, the world’s greatest loser who starts and ends the story as exactly the same person.


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