Friday, April 12, 2019

The Evolution of Character

A while ago, someone told me they were ready to write their first novel. When I asked them to tell me about the story, they said they wanted to write about growing up on the North Side in the 1960s, talking about all the people they knew and everything they did. I was glad to help them with this endeavor, but I had to bring up a very challenging point. "That's not a story," I said. "Those are great characters, but you need to give them the mission, the challenge, and the adventure. Without a story arc, it's not a story. Characters can't evolve without a story."

Evolution - Scientific theory, but a writing fact
I have talked about this before, and it's worth mentioning again now and then. Good characters without a story arc end up dying on the page. The writing might be great but without the story, the characters don't grow and evolve. It becomes BOSH writing (Bunch Of Stuff Happens), and readers pick up on that. A reader bonds to a character with a purpose and a function; with a mission in life. Reading about someone just stumbling from page to page is not the immersive experience readers go for. It lacks the escape that people seek within the pages of a book. As someone once famously said, "If I want a story that just drags on and on without anything really happening, I already have my life."

Don't get me wrong - there are some very good books out there that start off as apparently a series of unrelated stories about people just going about their business. But as we read these books, we discover that these characters have purposes, they have missions and they follow a common theme. The reader becomes attached to each story because there is something to connect to. A bunch of stories without some common chord just sounds like noise. As writers, we learn to rise above that.

In my previous post, "To Fiction or Not to Fiction," I hinted at some of the exploits of my peers back in high school. As individual short stories, they were very fun to relive and commit to the page. I am sure anyone would pick up one of those 2,000-word stories, read it, and find it amusing. And if I put forty of them together in an anthology, I am sure that plenty of my peers would pick up a copy just to read about how I interpreted those adventures. The average reader, however, is a different creature. And that creature needs to be won over by the story itself.

The average reader likely never lived at the far south end of the Chicago suburbs, did not go to my high school, and would not know my classmates from Adam. So what would attract them to the book? Well, good writing helps, but without some kind of story, theme, or evolution of the characters, the average reader will find it an amusing distraction at best, but is unlikely to buy a copy. They might borrow a copy to read about that one classmate with the third testicle, but they will set it aside afterward and the book is soon forgotten.

Now let's take that same set of stories and frame it differently. Let's have the 25th reunion of the Class of 1985. We can now offer these stories of childhood misbehavior with a contrast to who these people became. That one kid who took a joy ride in a cop car? He's now a Chicago police officer. The wild kid who had a hand in most every large-scale prank? He owns a B&B in Napa Valley (and lost that third testicle in a fight in 1989). The little runt who kept to himself but quietly was involved in many memorable incidents? Now he has a writing blog. These little stories now cover a 25-year arc, and the characters grow from A to B. And the reader travels with them

The story and the character's evolution are always important. On the next post, we will cover the other side of the coin - finding the right character to fit into the story.

2 comments:

  1. I see your point. My favorite movies and books are the ones which don't leave my mind. For days, weeks, months, years- they creep back into my thoughts making me think. They cause me to consider personal past, present, and future actions.

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    1. Exactly. When we see a character grow, we grow with the character. IN the best cases, we fuse with that character. They stay with us, and we remember them forever

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