The merits of fictional characters


Having seen discussion boards in which people spend time arguing about the merits of fictional characters, I would assume that a number of readers prefer these imaginary people to real ones. Fictional characters may be braver, more beautiful, or have greater ingenuity than real people so it is easier to become attached to them. But the real advantage is they don’t talk back and readers can imagine them however they desire. But, the same is not true for the people who create the stories. I can attest to a number of times that authors have related incidents in which characters they have created refuse to behave in the manner that the author envisions.

Characters live in the author’s heads, sometimes ignore their directives and even argue with them as the author tries to capture them with words. These finite words are the only way that reading audience may become acquainted with the character. There is the easy way to do this. Tell the audience directly that main character is a tall, muscular, fearless, and impatient man that speaks four different languages, has a preference for blonds and BMWs, and a severe allergy to peanuts. Then, there is the better way–write the narrative in a manner so the reader can observe the character, follow what he does, see how he reacts, hear what others say about him, and even listen to what he thinks about these other characters.

The next challenge is embellishing all the other less important characters, which is necessary unless you are writing a new version of Robinson Caruso. You cannot create them all with the same detailed development reserved for the main characters unless you want to drive your readers up a wall. Simply naming each character is confusing. We only want to spend the mental energy to keep track of the names of a few major characters and their sidekicks. Each minor character who is seen repeated times should still have a bit of individuality, like a quirk in behavior or a physical trait to make them distinguishable from the others.

So here are some usable shortcuts to creating characters:

Archetype–the embodiment of a collective set of characteristics for universal types of humans. Archetypes include the mentor, a wise old man or woman willing to share their wisdom with the hero, or the trickster, a lively characters whose loyal is always suspect.  Archetypes must be fleshed out with details to make them unique and different from other characters who are the same archetype, otherwise they are simply a stereo type.

Doppleganger–a character who looks identical to a main character. The doppleganger, can be an empathetic companion or an evil twin. Technically the doppleganger is an archetype, but their traits may be the same or opposite of their spitting image. They don’t have the boundaries of other archetypes.

Foil–a character who is pretty much the opposite of another, usually the protagonist. For example, a clumsy, shy foil would make your protagonist seem suave and cosmopolitan.

Semi-Round character–a partially developed character that has a contradictory trait or two to keep them from being flat and boring, such as an actor with stage fright.

Stock characters–a stereotype already created by the culture who behaves in an expected manner, such as the dumb blond or the ruthless drug dealer. Use the flat characters for those without enough importance to be named. They may appear once or twice and then they are gone from the story and often from the reader’s memory.

Creating complex characters for the protagonist, the antagonist and their cohorts is usually both more difficult and more satisfying for writer and the reader. Of course, some readers would rather simply be told what each character is like and they actually enjoy major characters who are stereotypes. Flat main characters are predictable and do not requiring any close observation or deep thought while reading. As a writer you have to decide who you are writing for and if you can live with your decision.

Artwork – Macaron by S.L. Listman


This entry was posted in Literary devices, Story structure, Writer's resource and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The merits of fictional characters

  1. Pingback: How to play the words well | Write about what?

  2. knlistman says:

    Reblogged this on Write about what? and commented:

    The first in a series on characterization…

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