Tag Archives: characters

Choosing the Star of Your Story

sigourney weaverOne of the best things about being a fiction writer rather than a movie producer: You don’t have to deal with your characters’ diva personalities or their agents arguing for top billing. You decide who is the star and who is the supporting cast, and you don’t have to pay anyone you edit out (you don’t actually pay any of them, but that’s not what this post is about).

Yet how do you know if you have chosen the right star? I’ve read a few blogs recently that discussed making sure your main character is one readers will want to follow. That is, you should make the most interesting character the star. It’s sound advice… that I disagree with. Sometimes.

My only rule for a main character is that he has to want something. He has to stay alive, get the girl, get revenge, get the dog, defuse the bomb, save his soul, or find his keys. Or he wants the wisdom to make a difficult choice. In other words, What He Wants is the thing that keeps the story going. While he certainly can be the most interesting character, he does not have to be the most interesting or even the most likeable one. As long as we can relate to him, somehow, on some level, he can be the star.

Sometimes I prefer the most interesting – or shall we say intriguing – character to be the one intimately entangled with what the hero wants. The intriguing character often has secret or knows something the hero does not. Think of the movie Alien, about a bizarre and deadly biomechanical organism running loose aboard a deep-space mining vessel. The hero, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), is not particularly interesting. She’s confused and scared just like the other crew members. Except one of them: Ash (Ian Holm) clearly knows something about the creature and why it is on the ship. In this scenario, information is the key to staying alive. Ash has it, and Ripley wants it. Watch the movie and you will see he is the most interesting character.

In my forthcoming micro-novel collection, The Nightclub of Lost Souls, the title story features a main character attracted to a mysterious woman in danger. We know a lot about him and nothing about her, except that she has a dark past. What happened to her, and what is the nature of the threat? You’ll have to read the story, but the fact that she is mysterious and he is not makes her more interesting. At the same time, if we make her the main character, the story loses its intrigue.

Every story is different, of course, and sometimes the main character is the most interesting or has to be because it is a character study. In ensemble pieces, the most intriguing character is not always integral to the conflict. I’d say that Han Solo is one of the more interesting people in the Star Wars universe, but Luke probably would have found a way to [SPOILER ALERT] blow up the Death Star without him.

han solo

So how do you decide which character gets top billing in your stories?

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Thanks to Jill Weatherholt for inspiring today’s post.

And thanks to Norwegian hair-metal band TNT for today’s related theme music.  Dang it. Tony Harnell had some serious singing chops. You’ll have to follow the link to YouTube.


Giving Characters Choices

Source: The Internet

Source: The Internet

Last time around I talked about character motivation, my philosophy being that interesting fictional characters must have intrinsic motivations as well as external goals. Otherwise, they are merely devices that serve the plot. Placed in another story, people should still have the same qualities driving their actions, but toward a different objective.

For example, if you take Luke Skywalker out of the Star Wars universe and put him in a Chicago slum in the 1920s, he’s still a restless young man with big dreams but an unclear picture of his destiny who feels trapped by his circumstances. Maybe he gets involved in organized crime and eventually becomes Don Skywalker. Perhaps he joins the FBI and foils the assassination of Shirley Temple. He might even go into acting and win an Oscar for his starring role in a Mark Hamill biopic. After all, the resemblance is uncanny.

Today I will build on this concept and discuss giving characters choices. Choice is where the character’s motivations intersect with the plot.

In most cases, a writer knows what her story is about, so her characters don’t really have a choice as to their actions. If Luke Skywalker had decided not go to Alderaan with Ben Kenobi, the second half of Star Wars might have been a bit of a downer. But still, we don’t want our heroes and villains to be like marbles rolling down a slide that leads to the climax. We should give them choices, and then give them reasons to make the correct one for the plot.

I got to thinking about this because of a story tossing around my hard drive for about three years now. I believe I created an interesting main character who is appropriately flawed and who has intrinsic qualities that steer his behavior. His backstory makes him sympathetic, if not likeable. I also included plenty of emotion and a dark, dramatic climax.

Disney is too big to sue me

Disney is too big to sue me

But it doesn’t work.

About every six months, I open it up, read it, move a few words around, add or subtract a line, then stick it back in the nether reaches of MS Word. I just haven’t been able to figure out what is wrong with it. Until now, that is.

Upon hard analysis, I have identified the fatal flaw: When my character’s motivations intersect with the plot, he does not make a choice. He just does what I told him to do, and that sucks the tension out of it. Enlightened by this sudden awareness, I now understand the choice he must make and the revisions I must do to set it up. Unfortunately for him and for his likeability factor, he will make a bad choice. Sorry dude.

Think about the choices you’ve made and how things that seemed insignificant at the time have had a profound impact on your life: The party you almost skipped… where you ended up meeting your future husband. That day you ran back into the house to grab a Milli Vanilli CD for the road… only seconds before your idling car was obliterated by a meteor. That time Obi Wan’s ghost told you to switch off your targeting computer, and you used the force to hit an impossibly small opening in the Death Star’s exhaust port, thus saving the galaxy.

Our fictional characters must have options too. Instead of making them follow a pied piper, imagine the plot not taken. Ironically, by giving them choices, we make their outcomes seem all the more inevitable.

Thoughts, comments, insults?

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I promised no more 80s videos, but, darn it, those cats back then anticipated my blog topics so well. If One Direction has a song about making choices, let me know. For next time.