“A story with a fantastic character but a bland setting has a much better chance of succeeding than a story with a fantastic setting but a bland character.”
This is what the king of fantasy, Brandon Sanderson, says when it comes to what he believes to be the most important aspect of writing — character. And I can’t disagree.
My favorite books as a reader tend to be ones that are more character driven than plot driven. For example, one of my more recent reads, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, hooked me because of the delightful main character, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, and his narrator. It didn’t matter that the entire story took place inside a hotel because I was invested in the character, his voice, his quirks, his conversations, etc.
Brandon also says one of the essential parts of writing strong characters is to make them pro-active. We can’t just let things happen to our characters. They have to have some sort of agency and not simply flung around like a tumbleweed. This, Brandon says, is often why villains tend to be more interesting than antagonists, because they have concrete goals and aspirations, and they’re usually pretty damn lofty.
Now although these goals and plans and events are important, at the end of the day, it is the characters themselves who must always be put first.
Janet Fitch, author of the renowned White Oleander, emphasizes this when she says, “We don’t start with the external circumstances — we start with character.” You have to know who your character is, then put pressure on those personality traits to bring them to life. More simply put,
“The constitution of the character makes the plot.”
Conflict is needed, of course. But the conflict must be fitting for that particular character or else it won’t inspire or encourage them to change.
And the best types of conflict? Ones built right into the characters themselves.
For Mary Robinette Kowal, one way to do this is to have a character become more insecure the more they succeed. (Basically, give them impostor syndrome.)
It’s all about nuance. Human beings are flawed and often contradictory. Very rarely does a person only ever act one way or stay motivated by only one value. To make our characters believable, we must make them just as complicated as humans.
To Valynne E. Maetani, another way to approach this is to treat your characters as a terrain or an ecosystem where you emphasis one feature over another at different points. Just because you’re focusing on a river right now doesn’t mean ravines or mountains don’t exist, too.
But you must know all of these traits like the back of your hand and make sure you use them logically.
Have you ever read a book and a character who is terrified of heights climbs to the top of a mountain for no real reason? This is called lapses in logic, or plot holes. And for Australian author Allison Tait, this is incredibly off-putting for readers.
“You need really good reasons for your characters to do things, and they can’t just do them because you want them to,” she says.
If you just plop a character down into a scenario or into a setting, it can’t be just because you “needed them to.” Allison reminds us that, like most things in life, “this is not about you.” There must be a reason, and there must be some sort of logic behind it or else your readers will want to rip their hair out. Or at least put your book down.
As Count Rostov in A Gentleman in Moscow says, “If a man does not master his circumstances, he is bound to be mastered by them.”
Take control of your characters. They’re your creation. And the best part?
You can make them whatever you want them to be. And as long as you’re invested in them, that’s going to come through to the reader, and your characters will be ones they never forget.