Character Theory

What is either a picture or a novel that is not character? —Henry James

All fiction is based on character.

That is, every fiction story hinges on the writer's handling of the people in the story. In particular, it is the central character, or protagonist, who makes the difference between a good story and a bad one.

In fact, you can define a story as the prose description of a character attempting to solve a problem—nothing more. And nothing less.

In science fiction, the character need not be a human being. Science fiction stories have been written in which the protagonist is a robot, an alien from another world, a supernatural being, an animal or even a plant. But in each case, the story was successful only if the protagonist—no matter what he/she/it looked like or was made of—behaved like a human being.

Readers come to stories for enjoyment. They do not want to be bored or confused. They do not want to be preached to. If a reader starts a story about a machine or a tree or a pintail duck, and the protagonist has no human traits at all — it simply grinds its gears or sways in the wind or lays eggs — the reader will quickly put the story down and turn to something else. But give the protagonist a human problem, such as survival, and let it struggle to solve that problem, and the reader will be able to enjoy the story.

A story is like any other form of entertainment: It must catch the audience's interest and then hold it. A printed story has enormous advantages over every other form of entertainment, because the written word can appeal directly to the reader's imagination. A writer can unlock the reader's imagination and take the reader on an exciting journey to strange and wonderful lands, using nothing more than ink and paper. A writer does not need a crew of actors, directors, musicians, stagehands, cameramen or props, sets, curtains, lights. All a writer needs is a writing tool with which to speak directly to the reader.

On the other hand, the writer never meets the reader. You can't stand at a reader's elbow and explain the things that puzzle him; you can't advise the reader to skip the next few paragraphs because they are really not necessary to understand the story and should have been taken out. The writer must put down everything she wants to say, in print, and hope that the reader will see and hear and feel and taste and smell the things that the writer wants to get across. You are asking the reader to understand what was in your mind while you were writing, to understand it by deciphering those strange ink marks on the paper.

Your job as a writer is to make the reader live in your story. You must make the reader forget that he is sitting in a rather uncomfortable chair, squinting at the page in poor light, while all sorts of distractions poke at him. You want your reader to believe that he is actually in the world of your imagination, the world you have created, climbing up that mountain you've written about, struggling against the cold and ice to find the treasure that you planted up at the peak.

The easiest way—in fact, the only good way—to make the reader live in your story is to give the reader a character that he wants to be.

Let the reader imagine that she is Anna Karenina, facing a tragic choice between love and family. Or David Hawkins being chased by pirates across Treasure Island. Let the reader live the life of Nick Adams or Tugboat Annie or Sherlock Holmes or Cinderella.

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