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.