Creating Characters

A character who gets everything they want without compromise or being compromised is usually going to be the villain of the piece or a minor, undeveloped character you never get to know. This is because there is a true cost associated with achieving and receiving all of the things one desires. The hero/heroine’s journey is to find the path through this to find a place of balance between their end goal, their desires and the compromises which are necessary for them to achieve these things.

One of the challenges facing writers now is the question of how to tell a compelling story without falling into the trap of creating characters that lack resonance with an increasingly diverse audience who not only want inclusion but inclusion that doesn’t feel hollow. If you are to judge by the many loud voices this is not only a challenge but nearly impossible. However, I’m not convinced that this is the case.

If you approach inclusion as something that requires you to use math to determine the proper ratios to include in your story you will probably find that it creates a hollowness. I’m not going to suggest that math and art can’t coexist but statistics do tend to siphon all the joy from creative ventures. So, let’s not approach inclusion from the standpoint of population ratios, let’s talk about story telling from the standpoint of the character and the life trajectory that enables a character to become interesting.

The trope that inclusive characters are often held up against is the Mary Sue/Marty Stu trope which like any other tropes will be cited anytime someone hates a character and wants to point to the evidence as to why the character is the worst without feeling like maybe the dislike is more personal in nature. Basically, “you’re the problem, I’m not the problem”. And this is a valid place to start because the main theme that makes this trope annoying is that this type of character is able to be all and have all–they are at best boring and at worst villainous.

What we want and need in protagonists are:

  • Someone we can relate to. If your character is ridiculously powerful (unrelatable) you can make them relatable through their flaws, pain and interests.
  • Someone who has to undertake a challenge that seems overwhelming or impossible.
  • Someone who encounters obstacles that are meaningful and cause them to change, grow or diminish in response.
  • A protagonist who has a flow of their own in order to carry not just the story but our interest in the outcome of their actions.

None of the above prohibit any type of character from having what it takes to be a protagonist, in fact if you want your story to get people excited you want some of your lesser characters to feel as though they could be a protagonist–this is how you can add dimensional diversity even when your lead character cannot possibly tick all the boxes. More importantly, your protagonist doesn’t need to carry the whole story because that really does make it more likely they will become an unrelatable trope. Character diversity means that you can expand on your characters, the way they interconnect with one another, the tensions they create amongst themselves but most importantly the way that your diverse cast resolves their conflicts.

And, for a brief aside–diversity can include personality, gender, skin color, cultural background, health status and all sorts of connecting pieces which together equal a whole character who is made up of many interlocking elements. In order to reach a viewer your character doesn’t have to look or act like that one viewer but it helps if individual viewers can see parts of themselves, their challenges, obstacles they face and narrative advice for how to resolve those problems and narrative conclusion that reaffirms for them that they can conceivably accomplish resolution to challenges in their own lives.

But, it is also important as an audience member to understand that a story with a protagonist who isn’t compromising or compromised in some way becomes a very hollow narrative. A story can and should frustrate you. A character should have flaws that make you a little crazy at times because this conflict replicates our lives. These tensions help us to see that we can overcome the challenges we face, that we can be heroic in our own stories and that heroics require us to compromise. That compromise doesn’t need to be a soul crushing compromise but rather it can involve smaller things like being willing to accept help when we genuinely cannot succeed on our own. The every day heroics are the ones that resonate the most for us because they are the ones that don’t earn glory but make an enormous impact  on the quality of our lives.

As to antagonists, they are rarely so different from your protagonist as to be unrecognizable but are usually the character who won’t offer the helping hand and scorns anyone who receives assistance because their world view is at the extreme.

Villain is the extreme end of the spectrum with victim at the other extreme and your hero moves back and forth in the middle to varying degrees. These tensions are what allow you to talk about the rules, morality, world views and environment of your story without codifying them.

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