Fiction writers too often forget that interesting characters are almost always characters who are active-risk-takers - highly motivated toward a goal. Many a story has been wrecked at the outset because the writer chose to write about the wrong kind of person -a character of the type we sometimes call a wimp.
You know what a wimp is.
He's the one who wouldn't fight under any circumstances.
Ask him what he wants, and he just sighs.
Poke him, and he flinches-and retreats.
Confront him with a big problem, and he fumes and fusses and can't make a decision.
Now, in real life there are a lot of wimps. You and I have both been wimpy far more often than we would like to admit. We get confused, we get scared, we get far too ambivalent, and we just sit around and wait to see what might happen next.
To put it another way, in reality-in the real world -much of what happens is accidental. "Isn't life funny!" we exclaim, after fate has taken a hand and something has worked out by itself, seemingly. And so we stagger on, major life changes just sort of happening, and we often don't take the bull by the horns because we can't even figure out where the damned bull is.
But fiction isn't reality; as we said before, it's better.
So, in most effective fiction, accidents don't determine the outcome. And your story people don't sit around passively. (Now and then you'll find a story in which what I've just said is disproven; but I'm talking about most successful fiction. Most readers don't want their stories to tell them life is random. They want to hear just the opposite. They want to believe something. What they want to believe is that trying hard can pay off, and that people are in charge of their own fate. )
That's why wimps - spineless drifters who won't or can't rouse themselves to try-usually make terrible fiction characters.
Good fiction characters are fighters. They know what they want, they encounter trouble, and they struggle. They don't give up and they don't retire from the action. They don't wait for fate to settle the issue. In good fiction, the story people determine the outcome. Not fate. This is just another of the many ways in which fiction surpasses life and is better than real life.
Look at it this way: A good story is the record of movement. A good story if movement. Someone pushes; someone else pushes back. At some level, therefore, a story is the record of a fight.
If you accept this premise, then it's obvious that you can't invest the action and outcome of your story in a wimp. He'll refuse to struggle, won't push back when shoved, and will run and hide at the first opportunity,
"I just can't make anything happen in my story", you'll hear another writer complain. Or, "I've got a good idea, but can't seem to keep it moving. " Or, "Something is wrong with my new story; it seems dull, and the characters are lifeless. " In all such cases, the real problem is not with plot, but with the kind of central character the writer has chosen to write about. Jerk that wimp out of the story and put in someone who will press ahead like the movie characters that John Wayne used to play, or the ones usually portrayed today by someone like Clint
Eastwood. Now something will start happening!
Does this mean that every character has to be as violent and headlong as a Clint Eastwood movie character? By no means. Just because a character is strongly goal-motivated and active doesn't mean he has to be a superhero. A character may be active-refuse to give up or stop trying-yet still be scared or sometimes unsure of himself. In actuality, such a character, who acts despite worry or fear, is stronger than the one who simply plunges onward without doubt or thought.
How do you build a strong character who will act and not be a wimp? In the first place, you determine to do so. You throw away any wrong ideas you may have about the quiet, contemplative, sensitive, thoughtful character, and recognize that it isn't very interesting, watching somebody sit in his easy chair and ponder things. Your character has to be a person capable of action, and that's for starters.
Now, having decided that you'll write about someone who is willing to do something rather than sit around and await the workings of fate, you have to nudge him into action. How do you do that? By hitting him with that threatening change we talked about earlier.
At this point, you put yourself in your character's shoes and begin to give him a game plan. This is his response to whatever threatening change now faces him. He does not give up or whine; he decides to do something to fix his plight. He sets out with a goal. He is committed. Attainment of his goal is essential to his happiness.
All well and good. Having come this far, you have started to build your story as a quest. Virtually all contemporary fiction, at some level, is the record of such a quest. The "Indiana Jones" thrillers worked on the big screen because they were pure quest (in the third such adventure, it was literally a quest for the Holy Grail). Your story may involve a lesser goal, literally speaking, but it can be no less vital to your character.
Something has changed.
Your character is threatened.
He vows to struggle.
He selects a goal and starts taking action toward it.
And you have a story under way.
It sounds simple enough, doesn't it? Then why do so many writers make it so hard?
Why, for example, do they let themselves get so tangled up in background information that the character has to sit around for page after page, while the author does a core dump of old information? Why do they let the character worry and fume for page after page instead of doing something} Why do they plunge into Freudian analysis of the poor guy instead of letting him get off the couch and get after it?
Confusion of confusions, all is confusion when you forget, even briefly, and allow your character to act like a wimp. Male or female, young or old, lovelorn or treasure-bound, your central story person has to act. And he has to confront at least one other story person who is also decidedly un-wimpy, so there can be a struggle. The minute somebody quits or retires from the action even temporarily, your story dies on the vine.
We're talking here mainly about major characters in your story. But even minor characters may suffer from passivity. You should examine all your characters to see if making them stronger-acting might make them also more vivid and interesting. For the wimpy character usually tends to fade into the woodwork and be dull.
Now, this may sound like I'm arguing for only one kind of story, an action/adventure. Nothing could be further from the truth. While a strong, goal-motivated character is easier seen in such a yarn, the effective character in even the quietest modern story will almost always be a person capable of action. In a romance novel, for example, the young woman may seem unwilling to face the man to whom she is attracted and may even deny her own feelings and actively avoid him. But please note that she is taking action, even if it is sometimes negative. In a psychological story about a man assailed by self-doubt and uncertainty, he will realize that he has a problem and see a doctor or take a pill or discuss it with a friend or write a letter or do something.
So that-to repeat for emphasis - every story is the record of a quest. An active character worth writing about will form some goal, based on his plight and his motives. He will work toward that goal, not sit back passively. And-wonder to behold-his active selection of a goal will be picked up by the reader and used as a basis for suspense.
Any time a character forms a goal-oriented intention in fiction, the reader will turn the goal statement around and make it into a story question- and then begin worrying about it! This is an activity at which the reader is wonderfully adept. You give your un-wimpy character the goal of finding his lost sister, and the reader instantly worries, Will he find his lost sister? Or you give your character the specific goal of winning a better job, and your reader immediately worries, Will she get the better job?
From this process of reader-translation - character goal to story question-comes reader worry, or to give it another name, suspense.
Let me suggest that you look hard and long at the kind of characters you typically tend to write about. Are any of them wimps? Do they whine or sit around passively or "wait and see"? If so, they may be at the heart of your problems as a writer of fiction.
How do you get them going? First you change your assumptions about what makes a good fiction character. Then you present them with a pressing problem. Then you decide what they are going to do about it-now. And finally you keep them moving, continuing to struggle; you never allow them to give up or retire from the story action. They move and they press and they keep on, always questing after their goal, whether it's a date to the high school prom or the Holy Grail.
Same thing, ultimately. Because whatever it is, it's essential to your character's happiness, and that character will not give up. He's determined; he's going to try and try again. He's going to fight to maintain control of his life - and determine his own destiny.
I care about him already, don't you?
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