Why Your Characters Must Have It Bad

Imagine:

Frodo is given a magic ring by his eccentric uncle that makes him invisible. All Frodo does in the novel is put it on and play a practical joke every once in awhile on Sam or Merry or Pippin, and then retires for the day. End of Story.

Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread and is able to feed his starving sister. He later founds his own business and becomes wealthy and marries Fantine and they both care for Cosette. End of Story.

 Jack Torrence gets the job to be the caretaker at the Overlook Hotel, but early on he and his wife and psychic son realize the place is haunted and hire an exorcist. He writes his novel, the boy enjoys riding his Big Wheel through the hallways, and the wife never has to call anyone to save them from a axe-wielding lunatic. End of Story.

So, yes, I think you understand what I’m getting at here. End of Story? Why, there is no story. Who wants to read about nothing that goes nowhere? Why even write such a story in the first place? Who cares? Many of us live pointless lives that deal with a humdrum existence that doesn’t build us or challenge us. At least not on a daily basis.

 But we, as writers, know that. Sheesh, even I at age 7 realized my short stories about dog adventures and Godzilla tearing up the place detailed major setbacks for the main characters. So, conflict is integral to the fabric of a story. However, what is often missed is the emotional conflict, the poignant self-challenges characters must face in order to become stronger and greater than they are; the more emotional depth, the greater their story.

I often read bestselling novels these days where the story is laid out well, sports a protagonist, an antagonist, and redolent of pace and action, but is easily forgotten because the main characters, though challenged physically, never face anything that must change them.

Most are series characters. For example, I enjoy the story behind Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon works; there are intrigues and puzzles and thrills, but Langdon is a forgettable character because he never grows. He’s always the same. One blockbusting novel to another, I could take them and wrap them together and they would fit seamlessly because they are the same. Langdon will figure out the puzzle. He will stop the bad guy, despite the conflict.

Not to pick on Mr. Brown; literature is rife with 2-dimensional series characters who solve their problems without change within themselves. Agatha Christie’s famous characters Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple never change from story to story. They are “practically perfect in every way.” The gimmick with Christie’s novels is the intricate weave of the clever mystery; Brown’s pace and thrills as Langdon is pushed to his limits. Most dime-store pulp fiction is written that way. The reader is escaping.

The more poignant novels, however, are those stories where the character must confront him/herself and find out that they are changing at a very deep and emotional level. The main characters might succeed in their quest to Mount Doom, but the journey will tear them asunder. Frodo in Lord of the Rings is forever changed; the evil of the One Ring punishes him as he journeys a HELLUVA long way from home. Jean Valjean raises Cosette but must endure the fact she will fall in love with another and dash his own romantic ideals aside, though he’s suffered to make his and her life better. Jack Torrence faces his demon of alcoholism, but here, he is changed too much; he fails and is lost.

Harry Potter, a series character, is so poignant at times because he grows from novel to novel. As he goes through adolescence, his fate that is intertwined with Valdemort also grows. This is reflected in his companions as well. There is a good chance that somehow Potter might not survive this, and his journey is redolent of failures and challenges that are often too much for him to deal with. He pulls through most of them, with the help of his friends and allies, but all-in-all, Potter might not be powerful enough to meet the final challenge – and he might be defeated.

A memorable character faces challenges, but the memorable character’s main goal is not just ending the surface quest. There is more at stake here. Perhaps not only the life of the protagonist, but the very soul – the spirit – of what they had been at the outset.

How do we write something like that? How do we bring a character to the brink?

Retrospective.

This is the hard part of being an artist; too many authors shirk the deep stuff because it means they have to delve into their own psychology. They have to breathe life into those Seven Deadly Sins of their own nature to breathe life into their characters. And that is what’s the most perilous; it becomes a journey to Mount Doom for the author and not just poor old Frodo and Samwise.

Stephen King’s characters are often reflections of his own psychology and personality. His characters are memorable because he makes them real. He makes them vivid, because they are him. His fantasies are an outlet of his own battles, and as such, we’re on for the ride because we identify with those precepts.

A writer should find those hot buttons they won’t go to. They must be willing to find their own deep-seated fears, lusts, and other driving darknesses to bring their own characters to such a level. A good novel is not just a series of flowery words, no matter how well written; it is a venture into the darkest realms of our psyche.

 

A few of his short stories are published by various for print and online literary magazines. Here are a few:

“Thumbs Up” (Midway Journal): http://www.midwayjournal.com/Oct10_Fiction-ThumbsUp.html

“Don Quixote de Las Vegas” (Moronic Ox): http://www.moronicox.com/don-quixote-de-las-vegas-dangelo.html

“In the Garden” (decomP magazinE): http://www.decompmagazine.com/inthegarden.htm

“Chad and Willie Break a Leg (March, 2013 – The Legendary): http://www.downdirtyword.com/

 

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About mciddangelo

"I write because I believe in literature; I believe that the art of words is louder than sound, more colorful than paintings. My novels are written not because of the pursuit of money or even success, but in the FAITH that they exalt our experiences; that not only do they give us enjoyment to read them, but they are meant to open worlds that a reader may not ever imagine." M Cid D'Angelo is published in Aiofe's Kiss, Calliope, Eureka Literary Magazine, Third Wednesday, Midway Journal, and many others. He is the author of Dead Reckoning (J Ellington Ashton Press, 2015), available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle versions.
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2 Responses to Why Your Characters Must Have It Bad

  1. SK Delph says:

    Soon as I started reading this article, I knew I had to go back to my character drawing board! Great article!

  2. Quinn O'Hara says:

    Thank you M. Cid Angelo Well said . Certainly made me rethink about my current writing endeavor .

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