National Graphic Novel Writing Month Day 18: Starring Roles– The Importance of Character Analysis
– Ronald D. Moore, Executive
Producer of Battlestar Galactica
(2004) and Caprica
always filled with over-the-top superpowers, bright spandex costumes, and
universe-spanning storylines. While these flashy props were enough to sustain
the comics industry in its infancy, the modern comic reader expects more. Many
of the biggest, most complex stories are known for their iconic moments with
DC’s Final Crisis saw the return of Darkseid
and a time-travelling bullet, but we all remember it for the simple image of
Superman holding the lifeless body of his best friend – Batman – in his arms,
sorrow filling Big Blue’s face. Marvel’s Civil
War brought heroes toe to toe with one another, splitting teams and
friendships alike. What became iconic was the bitter struggle between two men
who used to be best friends: Iron Man and Captain America, then Stark’s grief
over his actions leading inexorably to the death of Steve Rogers.
photo in a frame. A couple is standing in front of the Eiffel Tower, quite
happy. The frame is a fun pewter souvenir from the Tower itself. The focus –
however – is still the couple. Stories are just the same. We may set it in a
creative, dramatic setting. We may dress it up with superpowers, costumes, or
deep philosophic meanings. None of this works, however, without the characters
to drive the story. If the characters don’t ring true, the entire story falls
apart. Characters are how we – the reader – access, understand, and empathize
with a story.
When dissecting your characters, whether protagonist,
antagonist, or a mere cameo appearance; they need to feel real. The
three-dimensionality of a character can make or break your story, no matter how
brilliant of a plot you’ve devised or how epic the setting. Creating a
believable character involves a precarious balance between two not-so-small
aspects: uniqueness and universality.
This quality may sound self-evident and I’m sure you’re
already thinking, “My character is completely original! No one has ever written
about a half-dwarf, half-cyborg ex-porn star-turned airline pilot-turned super
hero name Glinterhilda!” This is probably true, but I’m not talking about her
background, I’m talking about how she interacts with other characters, how she
connects the reader to the material, and how she approaches each new situation.
Glinterhilda may seem as original as a computer virus that
boosts computer performance, but if she reacts to every situation just like
John McClane in the Die Hard movies,
she won’t come across as unique no matter how complex her back story. For this
reason, it’s important to really flesh out a character. Figure out who they
are, where they’ve been, why they react in the ways they do. While all
characters are drawn from real life or other fiction, the good ones aren’t
simple carbon-copies. Even movies based on fact will dramatize the real-life
To accomplish this, you have to ask yourself many questions.
How did Glinterhilda become a cyborg? Why did she turn to porn? Why did she
leave porn? Why did she become an airline pilot? Why did she stop? Why did she
become a super hero? There are even questions we may overlook such as why her
parents named her Glinterhilda. While you may find the answers to these
questions never coming up in your story, they all affect how you character
makes decisions and how she interacts with other characters.
biased, it’s generally because we’ve gotten hung up on a particular and
forgotten to connect with the universal about another person.”
–Michael Wright, Author of Playwriting in Process
glance, universality may sound the opposite of uniqueness, and it should. While
each character should be unique, there is – in each of us – a universal quality
that every other human being can relate to. Superman is a nearly omnipotent alien, but we
relate to him because of his love and caring for Lois and his parents. Even Lex
Luthor has a deep caring for humanity. That’s what misguides him in his mission
to destroy the Man of Steel.
Williams’ portrayal of Andrew in the film Bicentennial
Man drew in audiences and made them cry for him over and over again.
Andrew, however, was an android. Despite this limitation, it was his stark
humanity that drew in audiences. Characters
have parents, loved ones, a sense of humor, a reverence for things holy, and
all other characteristics that you endow them with. These traits make each and
every unique character still represent a range of real human beings. Without
this universality, your readers will never connect to your story. They need to
feel as though they have something in common with your characters.
universality doesn’t just apply to your leading men and ladies. The characters
most likely to suffer from two-dimensionality aren’t your protagonists, but the
antagonists and the side-characters. Stephen King wrote, “…no one is ‘the bad
guy’ or ‘the best friend’ or ‘the whore with a heart of gold’ in real life; in
real life we each of us regard ourselves as the main character, the
protagonist, the big cheese; the camera is on us baby.” An actor never judges the character he or she portrays,
and neither can a writer. You have to love your characters, all of them. You
have to understand and relate to all your characters. The most frightening villains
are the ones we can imagine running into at our local Wal-Mart, and they need
that crucial universality to become that.
In the end,
there is no single best way to create characters. Stephen King begins writing a
story, knowing his characters only as vague references, and then they develop
into human beings as the story grows. Other writers may spend hours writing
in-depth character histories before ever inserting a character into a story.
The journey to great characters is up to you – the writer – so long as the
destination is true, life-like characters that write themselves.
Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
. New York, NY: Pocket, 2000. Print.
Michael. Playwriting in Process: Thinking and Working Theatrically
. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1997. Print.
Remember: you can follow all the NaGraNoWriMo posts here!