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Devourer of Words 014: Building Character

Marc Bernardin

There’s a great saying, popularized back in 1983 by screenwriter William Goldman in his Hollywood memoir, Adventures in the Screen Trade: “Nobody knows anything.” That no one knows why this movie is a hit or that one is a flop, or why this actor is a star and that one is just a well-regarded supporting player. But the Hollywood machine keeps marching on, because it must.

But there is one thing that is absolutely true about serial storytelling: the reason people keep coming back, week after week or month after month, is because they’re in love with the people in those stories. Character is everything. A good high-concept is fine, but it’s who gets stuck in that high concept that matters.

And comic book shelves are littered with books that have great high concepts and stock characters—and those are the books that fade, usually quickly. Because a zombie uprising, or time travel, or space opera, or superheroes is just not enough. The characters need to resonate.

It is absolutely fine to start building your story with the world. You can’t decide how a story will come to you: sometimes, it’s the arena that pops first. But before you go too far, find out who will populate your story, or you’re just building a great role-playing adventure.

Who is in your story? Why are they the only people who could be? What makes them interesting? What do they want? And that last question is the most important.

Drama is about conflict. And the most basic versions of conflict are Man versus Man, Man Versus Self, Man Versus Nature. And that is pretty much it: the totality of drama, in nine words. And the reason for that versus—the fight—is because your hero wants something. And something else is in his or her way. Your job as a writer is to figure out what those somethings are.

For Odysseus, he wants to get home and a bunch of things are in his way—weather, Cyclopes, his libido. Luke Skywalker wants to rescue Princess Leia; Darth Vader and his Death Star are in the way. (He also wants Leia to be his girl, but Han Solo and incest are in the way.) The Bandit wants to haul a boatload of Coors across state lines; Smokey (well, lots of Smokeys) is in his way. Jesse Custer wants God to explain himself; all of creation and a bit of damnation don’t want that to happen.

As important as discovering that foundational conflict is defining what qualifies as victory. Rocky doesn’t need to beat Apollo Creed in the first Rocky flick. He just wants to go 15 rounds with the champion of the world. He can lose the fight and win the movie.

What does your hero want and what is he willing to do to get it? Is he willing to steal? Cheat? Kill? How much of himself will he compromise? Answer that question and you’ll be well on your way.

Remember: no one person is just one thing. Serial killers can also be good to their pets. People often have conflicting poles within themselves that they spend their lives trying to navigate. Pure goodness or pure evil are both not real and boring. Find ways to get across things like narcissism, selfishness, prejudice. All too often, the character traits a reader will identify with the most are the not-so-good ones. And the reason we root for those characters is because they’re struggling with the same things we are.

One more thing: you need to know how your character sees him or herself in this world. As they say, every villain is the hero of their own story. They think they’re right. Everyone does. Here’s an exercise—write your character’s obituary. What are the things they’d like a light shined on? What are the events they hope never get dragged up again?

How would they like to be remembered after they die? That will tell you a lot about how they live.

Marc Bernardin’s Devourer of Words appears the third Tuesday of every month here on Toucan!