In my last blog post, I claimed that there is ONE thing that you must know in order to create good characters. I challenged my loyal blog readers to tell me what that ONE thing is.
Rob nailed it:
Every character is the hero of his/her own story.
Randy sez: Correct! This is absolutely fundamental to getting three-dimensional characters. When somebody tells you your villain is “cardboard,” the problem is almost certainly that you don’t give a dang about that villain because you cooked him up specifically to be the villain in your hero’s story.
The solution is Xtremely simple. Ask your villain what his story is. If you ask, he’ll tell. And if you give him a little time to explain, you may find that he has a point. In fact, it’s only when you realize that he has a point and start believing that he has a point that he’ll become a real character.
Ditto on all the other characters in your story. When you quit thinking of the hero’s sidekick as a sidekick, and start thinking of him as having his own story, that’s when he’ll come alive in your mind. If he’s alive in your mind, then he’ll be alive in your reader’s mind.
It really is that simple.
Let’s illustrate this by looking at Han Solo in STAR WARS. We’ve already worked out the one-sentence summary and one-paragraph summary for the movie, which essentially tell Luke’s story:
“A young farm boy joins a princess in the Rebellion against the Galactic Empire.”
“Luke Skywalker meets two mysterious droids who lead him to an old Jedi master, Obi-wan Kenobi. When Obi-wan asks him to help rescue Princess Leia, Luke refuses — until he finds his aunt and uncle murdered by Storm Troopers. Luke and Obi-wan join forces with Han Solo and Chewbacca to rescue the princess — at the cost of the old man’s life. Luke and his friends escape and journey to the rebel planet, where they learn that they have been tracked by the Death Star. In the final battle, Luke uses the Force and some help from his friends to destroy the Death Star.”
Notice that Han Solo doesn’t play at all in my one-sentence summary, although he gets some air-time in my one-paragraph summary. From Luke’s point of view, Han is the bus driver to get him to the action. And he’s a pretty irritating and selfish bus driver, at that.
But how does Han see things?
From his point of view, he was minding his own business, trying to earn the money he needs to pay back Jabba the Hutt, when in came this snotty kid Luke and this pie-in-the-sky old man Kenobi, offering him money for a ride off the planet. They’re a bit of easy money, but to be honest, they’re kind of flakey. Luke thinks he’s a hot-shot pilot, but he’s a farm kid with too many hormones clogging his brains and no experience in the real world. And Kenobi is clearly a quack.
So Han gives them a ride to the place they want to go, which unfortunately no longer exists when they get there, because the Death Star has inconveniently shot it to bits. Before he can react, the Death Star is pulling Han’s precious ship in with a tractor beam, and now the old coot has some whackball idea about how he’s going to get them out. Oh yeah, right.
And once the old guy has gone off to try his little magic tricks, this idiot kid Luke wants to go off saving the princess from under the noses of about seven billion HEAVILY ARMED Storm Troopers. Where’d this kid study logic? Against his far superior judgment, Han gets talked into making a stab at rescuing the princess, but only because she is rich and rescuing her would solve Han’s financial problems.
Thanks to Han’s great shooting (and no thanks to the dratted kid, who just hasn’t got a single brain cell more than necessary to support complex life), they do rescue the princess, who turns out to have a major league attitude. When they finally get back to the ship, they find out that the old man is duking it out with good old Black Sheet Vader himself. Too bad the old guy’s a little slow and gets a light saber in the gut, but that was his choice. Now the thing to do is get out of Dodge.
Once again, thanks to great driving AND great shooting by Han, they escape the Death Star. Yeah, sure, the old man did his part by shutting off the tractor beam. So he found a lever somewhere and threw it–big whoop-de-doo. The important thing is that Han Solo, the greatest pilot ever to fly the galaxy, got them out, evaded the chase, and took them safely to the rebel planet, earning the bucks he badly needs to pay back Jabba.
What gets weird is that Luke then thinks Han is SELFISH for wanting to go pay his debts! What kind of double-think is that? A guy needs to pay his debts. It’s the right thing to do. And anyway, right now, Jabba the Hutt has every bounty hunter in the galaxy out looking for him, so it’s also the smart thing to do. Han is never going to be free until that debt is covered. And Luke wants him to hang around and shoot up Imperials? That is just too stupid for words. What’s even more stupid is that Luke goes and gets himself in the thick of the battle, and ends up with one shot to take, Lord Vader on his tail, and no way out.
Han is a decent guy–ask anyone. He sticks up for his friends, even when they do stupid stuff. So he comes back, takes a shot at Vader, and knocks him into the next county with unbelievably great shooting. Luke squeezes off a lucky shot and takes out the Death Star. End of story. Except that, oh yeah, it’s pretty clear the princess has a thing for Han. Which is only natural, considering. Han’s not so sure he likes her. She’s kinda snooty in exactly the wrong sort of way. But he’ll think about it.
So that’s Han’s side of the story, and from his point of view, he’s the hero of it. Luke (quite literally) is a guy who just came along for the ride.
Given all that, here is Han’s one-sentence summary:
“A dashing young smuggler takes on Lord Vader in the battle to destroy the Death Star.”
16 words, and it makes clear who’s the REAL hero of this story.
Next time, I’ll work on Han’s one-paragraph summary, which makes clear what the REAL disasters are in this story–and here’s a hint: they aren’t what that snotty kid Luke thinks they are.
Hannah L. says
That is an awesome piece of advice, and I plan to follow it at the earliest opportunity!
I appreciate your work to help other writers out.
Daniel Smith says
Ditto! Great advice. Keep it coming!
I’ve heard this tidbit before, but this is a great illustration of it.
Pam Halter says
Great writing, Randy! I could actually HEAR Harrison Ford’s voice. 🙂
It’s true that we have to know our characters – especially the antagonist, in my opinion. The antagonist is the main person who forces the hero to action, so he/she is just as important to the story as the protagonist.
My mentor puts us through a bunch of questions at the beginning of each story. We have to ask the hero a question we don’t know the answer for. Then we write the answer in their voice.
Then we ask the villan a question we don’t know the answer for and write that answer in their voice.
I found out what was going on in my villian’s head. My villian was actually suffering. Amazing. But it helped me create a nice subplot I didn’t known was there.
I love writing. 🙂
Lynn Rush says
NICE advice. Thanks! I’m really impressed with all that you provide for us writers!
Andra M. says
Great advice indeed.
Go Han Solo!
Oh good…it wasn’t just me that heard Harrison Ford’s voice. lol… Great advice. I’ve been trying to figure out how to make my “sidekick” more 3D…this just might be the key!
Oh, this was just great! Not only the sound writing advice, but Han’s take on the whole story. Also because I’m sure that, at some time or other, we all have thought that Luke’s brain was sparsely furnished at best. And that has to be because whe have been made to see Han’s point.
Robert Treskillard says
THIS IS GREAT, Randy!
When I first read:
“Every character is the hero of his/her own story”
I thought it said:
“Every character is the hero of THE story”
But that subtle shift makes a lot of sense, especially when you include the villain.
In my WIP, I think I did this pretty effectively with both the villain(s) and the side-kicks, but I’m not sure if I thought through it the way you did here. Great illustration.
Cheri Williams says
This is why we love you Randy. You speak (er write) and we GET it! Thanks again!
Yes, thanks, Randy for solid, applicable help.
I’ve discovered through the ongoing analysis of the STAR WARS story, that it’s not only impossible, but acceptable not to include all the characters in the first brief condensations,i.e., one sentence doesn’t mention names, one paragraph doesn’t even mention all the characters.
More recently in writing a 750 word synopsis of my WIP (finished!) novel, I realized that one very influential character with a fascinating history, isn’t even mentioned in that. A later chapter-by-chapter synopsis, will eventually get to her.
Is this somewhere in the right track? Is it typical in your experience?
I agree with the whole every character is a hero in their own eyes. For the series I am working on the main villain was paper because he was evil and someone to fight. But when I started going through a second revising of outlines of each book, I started seeing the villain as a hero in his own way. Based on his past he is convinced he is the person to do something but goes about it the wrong way.
Marcus Goodyear says
This is so obvious and fun that I’m going to smack myself now.
David Stearns says
I’ve received FeedBlitz for some time now, and have always enjoyed and appreciated your gracious instruction and advice. I’m now in the midst of what I hope will be the last of several edits of my first novel, and I’ve been working very hard this time around to give real life to the characters in my story. This little article was a very timely assist in the regard. I thank you very much for all of your effort on behalf of aspiring writers.
Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) says
My difficulty with some of this is that I have some very strong supporting characters. At least two of them could have a story of their own in which my main story would be the subplot. (Not that I have it entirely mapped out; this is the story I want to tell).
—Before anybody tells me to map it and see if it’s better and tell that one, I want to say the current story is more adventure while the other is romance, and I don’t want to go there right now (the whole point of my original effort in novel-writing was to do a fairytale that *didn’t* end near the marriage.)—
Ooops, no intro.
I started reading at the end of last year, when you began working the StarWars track. Finally comment and I sound like a whiner. Sorry.
I mean, how do you give your main character room to grow without having him/her overshadowed by larger-than-life co-stars? What kept Han from stealing the show other than seeming– just a bit– like a royal jerk to everybody but himself?
Rachel Kimberly says
Wow. That was great. Why haven’t I come to this blog before? I really need this. My characters really need this. I can’t wait to see you do Darth Vader! 🙂
(I’ll admit that I only came here ’cause I saw STAR WARS mentioned in the ezine…*guilt*)
Aw, cool. I’m famous now!! 🙂
Marcus: I think some of the best writing advice strikes us as obvious only after we’ve heard it. And sometimes we need to hear it over and over and over before we actually start using it.
Corrected phrase – 2nd line of my comment above.
…it’s not only impossible TO INCLUDE, but acceptable not to include all the characters…
Sorry about that.
Randy, what about secondary characters who are basically walk on and walk out with a line or two in the story? Like in one story I’m writing, we have a heroine’s best friend, who basically comes on and off but doesn’t really end up having too much to do. More than anything else, she doesn’t have a story: she’s very happy with her conflict-less life, thank you very much.
Camille Cannon Eide says
Pure dead brilliant, man. My next novel has a cast of supporting characters: kids, teens and some adult staff in a home for unwanted kids. Something like a modern day Oliver, only with cutters, death metal and bits of ocd. I can see how easy it would be to make them cliche or cardboard if I don’t remember to apply this principal to each of them, to remember that each one truly believes the story revolves around them, regardless of how much audience I, the All Knowing All Powerful author, grant them. Of course, I realize I don’t get much say in the story once I give the characters freedom to be 3-D.
And there’s a danger–when our 3 dimensional characters become so real they take over the story. You gotta know when to rein them in without squelching the potential for a fabulous subplot. What do you suggest?
This reminds me of advice that they give to actors — no matter what part you have, play it as though you were the main character. And whatever the play is about, when you describe it to other people, you should explain it as though your character is the main character.
I’m glad we’re talking about characterization, because I think it’s one of my weaker points, particularly when I try to plan out my plots in a lot of detail beforehand. If I start out with only a loose idea of what’s going to happen, my characters seem to evolve their own opinions and attitudes. But when I try to plan each scene, even if I’ve spent a lot of time on characterization and motivation beforehand, my characters become lifeless. Does anyone else have this problem?
Great insight. I see this skill applied in your humor column, as well. Sam thinks it’s all about him.
Thanks so much.
I think one thing a person can do to help learn how to develop character is to study Freud, Jung, and Erickson (for kids), to mention just a few. These guys made it their life’s work to understand human motivation.
Without a great villain, there can be no great hero. I’m sure someone important said that. Homer, the ultimate master of fiction which countless generations have looked to as the ultimate role model made Achilles a great hero by making Hektor great.
Joanna Mallory says
Each character being the hero of his/her own story… I think I remember this from Fiction 101, but it got buried under some other stuff so thanks for bringing it to the surface again. It’s so simple, but true.
And thanks for illustrating it so clearly.
I know it’s for writing, but I think it’s a good life lesson too.
Avily Jerome says
That’s fun! I like seeing it from that point of view.
Randy, one thing I always have a problem with (and something that is giving me some serious writer’s block at the moment) is how to finally “hear” the character’s voice in your head. I can usually do it with all of my characters except for my main one, which, as you can imagine, is quite inconveinent. Anyway you could address this while we’re looking at character?
Christina Berry says
Don’t know if you saw the email on loop, but someone said Lord of the Rings reads very differently if you “know” that Samwise is really the hero. Makes me want to read it all over again.
So, first time reading the blog, let alone responding.
Reading this topic is interesting to me, mostly because it’s how I work mostly anyway. I typically have considered lengthy back stories for most of the major characted in my head before ever putting pen to paper. (Or hand to keyboard.) But it’s not something I focused on intentionally, so some characters occasionally fell through the cracks. Reminding myself to think like that is definitely a help.
Also, this discussion reminds me of a line from the movie Fool’s Gold:
character 1: Well if it isn’t the Ukranian side kick.
character 2: Eh, I like to think of myself of the hero in my own story.
I make these diagrams of all the character’s traits and personalities to have a reference for consistency.
Disney Press released a line of children’s books called “My Side of the Story” that does just what you are talking about: You see the story from both the hero’s and the VILLAIN’S point of view. My favorite is the Peter Pan – Captain Hook story. While I can’t say I sympathize with Captain Hook after reading his side, I can certainly understand where he is coming from. I also see some of Peter’s flaws and see he is not so perfect! Reading these books, like Randy’s advice, has shown me how my WIP should be just as much about the villain as it is about the hero.
Rebecca Talley says
Great advice. Villains need as much thought as the hero and need to reflect their good traits as well as their bad ones. After all, many “villains” aren’t completely evil, only characters who stand in the way of the hero attaining his story goal.
Magic Jalepenos says
wow! great advice. This is really helpful because i’m doing a Sci-fi/romance story so I was having a lot of trouble making the hero, heroing, and villian all 3-D. this will help alot. Question: how do you make each character the hero of his/her story if you are writing in first person point of view?
Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally, it seems
as though you relied on the video to make your
point. You obviously know what youre talking about, why throw away your intelligence on just posting videos to your site
when you could be giving us something enlightening to read?