The Top Three Things Your Character Needs
Back in 2014 Chuck Wendig wrote a blog post titled 25 Things A Great Character Needs. If you have not read this post yet I recommend you go read it now, and while you’re at it why don’t you go ahead and read everything that Wendig has written to date, and also follow him on Twitter because he’s a great writer, motivator, and champion of writers.
Now, I don’t necessarily think that a great character should have each of the 25 traits Wendig outlines in this article – for example, humongous genitals. Yes, Chuck Wendig is clearly joking around with us just to make sure we are all paying attention, and now I’m sure you are paying attention as well. However, the list he provides is a great tool, and it does contain the top three things I believe your character needs, and really, all great characters need.
Before we delve more deeply into these three things, let’s take a look at another post by Wendig first, this one titled The Zero-Fuckery Quick-Create Guide To Kick-Ass Characters (And All The Crazy Plot Stuff That Surrounds ‘Em). If you are finding a trend that I like Wendig’s writing style and advice then you are correct. In this post Wendig tells us that we first need to identify who our character even is. Initially it does not have to be a complex character sketch, just a quick snapshot of who they are, and really, who we are going to be spending many, many hours developing and writing about. Wendig says to think of this as a quick elevator pitch, or better yet, try to identify who the character is in the space of a single 140-character tweet.
Here is a quick example I put together for The Shinning.
Jack Torrance is a former teacher and writer who recently lost his job. He is married with a small son and has accepted a position maintaining a hotel over the winter.
That was 137 characters. It doesn’t give you a plot and that’s okay, because we are not looking for plot here, we are just looking for a snippet of who the character is, so we can then develop this into a real-life plot and hopefully a real-life book.
So now, what does the character need to be…well, memorable?
In Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers From the Very First Sentence by Lisa Cron, we are told that we all have a goal. Even for those of us who want our lives to remain exactly as they are and not change a single bit – that is a goal – a very difficult goal, actually. We all have something that we are trying to attain. That means your character should have a goal too. Your character should be looking to attain something. If your character does not have a goal, if your character is not trying to attain something, then why do they matter and why should I care?
Therefore, one of the three things that your character should have is a goal, or MOTIVATION – your character wants something, they need something. In Paul Tremblay’s Cabin At The End of the World, Daddy Andrew and Daddy Eric want to protect their family, especially their daughter Wen from intruders. That is it. That is their goal, their motivation.
So your character wants something and maybe there is something in their way? Maybe even the process of working towards that goal is a challenge. So, are they going to do something about it? I hope so! In Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel, Lisa Cron says when something gets in the way of the protagonist achieving their desire or goal, this creates a warring element. When this occurs, well, we the reader want the character to move. We want the character to take action. We want the character to have AGENCY.
In The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, Katniss Everdeen’s goal is to protect her sister, Prim. When Prim’s name is selected for the Hunger Games, Katniss offers herself in her sister’s place as tribute.
This is agency. This is taking action.
In Bird Box, why do we continue to read, turning page after page about Malorie Hayes’ ordeal, much of it as she learns to live a life without sight? Yes, Josh Malerman is a fantastic writer, but we are enthralled with the story because we care about Malorie. We care whether she lives or dies. We care about her changing living conditions. We care about her struggle, and much of this comes through because of who Malorie is on the page. We care about Malorie because of her PERSONALITY. Yes, we follow along as Malorie moves through space and time and navigates changing environments – but that’s plot. That’s not character. Malorie lives with us after we close the book, after we are done reading those pages because of who she is.
To go back to Wendig’s blog post, 25 Great Things A Great Character Needs, I agree with all of his points (except of course for the humongous genitals). But his first three items especially are essential for making a character great, for making a character memorable, and honestly, for making me care enough to spend hours, and sometimes days with a character.
Think back to some of the greatest books you have read, about those books that cling to you today, years after you finished reading them. Of course, the thrilling plot is there. Of course, there are those gorgeous sentences, and that intense pace. But most importantly, there are those characters that live inside of your heart, inside of your mind, and inside your nightmares. The motivation of those characters, the agency of those characters, and the personality of those characters is what makes them so great.
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