Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Quest for Story: #1 -- Strength of Character

(Photo by Chris J. Fries - 2012: Cowboy Photographer)

(This is post #1 in a new series: The quest to define what creates "a good story.")

Creative writing is an art form, and there  is a subjective nature to the appreciation of art -- what one person finds incredibly beautiful might seem dull and unimaginative to another.  I don't think anyone can make absolute, universal proclamations about exactly what defines art, or what makes it "good," and unfortunately this is true for fictional writing also.  So I know going in that this quest to define 'a good story' is a bit of a fool's errand.

But just like the elements of form, composition, color, and others can be used to assess the quality of visual art, there are concrete elements of creative writing that can still be discovered, detailed, and discussed as being key in turning a piece of fiction into 'a story.'  There are specific things that can be done with these elements to make the story be the best it can be -- to give it artistic life and maximize its emotional impact, so that it resonates as deeply as possible within the hearts and minds of readers.

That's what this quest is all about.  To find those writing elements and to point out a few ways to use them to their fullest potential within our stories.

Luckily, this isn't entirely uncharted territory.  People have been writing stories as long as there has been writing, and the art of story-telling goes much farther back than that -- to the earliest humans, gathered around their fires, sharing tales of love and loss, supernatural beings, and heroic deeds.  We've had a long time to figure out some of the things that work best in our stories.  I'm not going to have to make all this stuff up.

But this is still a noble and worthwhile quest, I think.  Shall we venture forth?

* * *

Our quest begins with what I consider to be the most important element of all creative stories:

Character

I think any successful story must be about someone.  There has to be a central character or group of characters to anchor the story. They 're the ones who we follow through the events of the story.

Our main characters don't necessarily have to be human.  They can be animals or aliens, supernatural creatures or sentient machines.  But regardless of their form, they still need aspects that the reader can relate to and identify with, and the more deeply the better -- even when the main characters are not human, we need to see the humanity within them.

They can be heroic or heinous, but they need to be someone we can bond with and care about.

They should be identifiable and easy to pick out -- story works best when we can clearly follow the characters who serve as our guides.

They must be interesting -- our main character should be unique, or at least find themselves in a unique situation. Just like the gentleman in the picture I took at the top of this post, a main character is most effective when they capture our eye, attract our attention, and raise our curiosity:  Who is he?  Why is he there? What is he doing?

Our main characters also come to life when they're complex and multifaceted.  The hero should have a few flaws; the heinous anti-hero should absolutely have some redeeming qualities.  We are all imperfect beings, and it is usually easier to connect with characters who are also imperfect.  A story may call for our heroes to be truly heroic, or to maybe have an obvious central trait that is noble and ideal -- bravery, strength, or intelligence, for example. But there should still be a few cracks in the hero's polished armor, if only for us to better relate to them, and to allow us to cheer as the hero manages to overcome their flaws.

We should be able to see our main character's inner self, either explicitly through their thoughts or words, or implicitly through their actions.  If they're struggling with inner turmoil, weighing heavy choices, and fighting personal demons -- and most definitely, they should be -- we need to know about it.

The goal is to rouse curiosity and encourage empathy within the reader, to incite and strengthen a bond between them and our main character.  To reach the point where the reader recognizes, understands, and cares deeply about our fictional protagonist.

If that happens, the foundation of a 'good story' is surely laid.

* * *

Next Monday, we will continue on with part two of our quest!  Until then, here's an epic scene from another famous quest to tide you over:


"What Is Your Quest?"



18 comments:

Suze said...

I think what makes a person (subjectively) love a story is a sense of identification with the character. Hence, those characters which we feel are most like ourselves are the ones who will most hold us in thrall.

The challenge of the writer, I think , then becomes character as mandala. Extract the essential human conflict and let your main character of characters bear the weight of that.

Humor also helps immensely, methinks.

Looking forward to forthcoming posts, good Sir Fries! A worthwhile journey you are taking us on, indeed.

Suze said...

A-a-and that would be 'or characters.'

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Characters should always come first. And if the reader can't relate, then it won't work.

DL Hammons said...

I LOVE that movie soooo much! :)

Characters are the cornerstone and foundation of any story able to draw my interest...both reading and writing! :)

Arlee Bird said...

Can't think of much to add to this since you covered it pretty adequately. Without a strong character a story can be a very tenuous read.



Lee
Wrote By Rote

Chris Fries said...

@Suze: Absolutely -- maximizing the reader's identification with the characters, and adding a heaping dose of inner conflict. Thanks!

@Alex: True, true -- A good story has to have at least a main character that the reader can relate to.

@DL: LOL! Of course you know I do too, Don. Ni!!!!

And you're right. That's why character is the first stop on this quest. Like any good story, it must begin with character.

Chris Fries said...

@Arlee: Thank you. I agree -- characters drive the story.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

You know what else I enjoy in a character? A surprise. Something you didn't expect. You think you know the guy (or gal) and then he/she does something unexpected.

Not something out-of-character, of course, but a twist of behavior you weren't expecting that adds a bit of depth.

LTM said...

Awesome, great points here, Chris! Unique characters struggling with some form of turmoil who ultimately turn out heroic. I think you've nailed it! Can't wait to see the next installment. :o)

Milo James Fowler said...

Great stuff, Chris! "Complex and multifaceted" characters are the best -- flawed heroes and villains with hearts of gold. As humans/readers, we're imperfect, and we enjoy rooting for characters that are equally so.

Mina Lobo said...

I find that I prefer being able to relate to the MC, but if that doesn't happen, I'll stick with the story so long as I'm engaged enough to want to know what happens to him/her and he/she doesn't do anything too annoying. I think if your reader can't enjoy your character on *any* level, you've lost that reader, possibly for good.
Some Dark Romantic

Chris Fries said...

@Dianne: Great point -- and who doesn't love surprises!? Plot twists, unexpected endings, and characters who can both feel familiar and well-known, and yet still offer us a surprise or two.

@LTM: Thank you, Leigh! And the next installment is in process, but it might be delayed until the end of today due to other stuff crying for attention.

@Milo: Thanks very much, and I absolutely agree. ;^)


@Mina: Absolutely -- there has to be some emotional attachment to the MC, at least at some level. Thanks!



Liesel K Hill said...

Great post! I think your one sentence sums it up perfectly: "They (the character) must be interesting." Otherwise, what reason do our readers have to keep reading? You make some awesome points here. Thanks! :D

.jessica. said...

Another (possibly overly-obvious) aspect of character that I've noticed I'm really drawn to is a strong worldview. If they're my proxy into the story, I want to them to have opinions, have insights that make me think. I don't just want to watch while things happen to them - I want them to have something to say about it all. It's wrapped up, I guess, with some of the basics - writing with voice, giving characters more than one dimension, etc. But even if I don't care that much about a story, I've discovered that I'll follow a character with a unique worldview almost anywhere, just to hear what they're thinking.

Chris Fries said...

@Liesel: Thanks! I really appreciate your kind words!

@jes: I agree! I think that's a big part of 'interesting' and 'unique'. As a reader, I love seeing a new perspective by following a great character. Well, OK, maybe not always -- for example, I get tired of being thrust into the killer's first-person PoV for long stretches, which can happen in in many mysteries, even when the character's world-views are radically different than mine.

Suze said...

Love Dianne's comment.

Nicole said...

Excellent post! I think characters define a story more than any other element. It's their personalities, histories and choices that drive their plot decisions and help readers connect emotionally to the story and the stakes.

Chris Fries said...

@Suze: Me too. ;^)

@Nicole: Thank you! And I absolutely agree.