Episode 213: Characters are not people

On January 6, 2023, Kasie and Rex kicked off Character Month with a discussion on character types and some tools you can use to sketch yours out. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Character Month Kickoff: Characters are NOT people

Agenda

  • Four main character types
  • Some key questions to ask about each character
  • We actually test the questions on the character types
  • How to write memorable characters (advice) and other tools
Photo by cottonbro studio on Pexels.com

So we did a run of plot-structure shows in December, but we haven’t declared a month-long topic for a while. Consider this you being put on notice: January is Character Month. Topics include but are not committed to:

  • Characters who need to die
  • Characters’ deepest fears
  • Character quirks that aren’t cliche
  • Character talents and skills

Today we’re going to work on the four general character types (link): The Protagonist, the Antagonist, the confidante, and the love interest.

I think we address these with some specific questions for each:

  • How and when do we know this is who this character is?
  • How much backstory do we get about this person? What is the purpose of the backstory?
  • What role does the character play in the story?
  • What is the character’s relationship with the other characters?
  • Is the character status or dynamic?
    • Character arcs aren’t for everyone.

Segment 2

This blog has seven types of characters (link):

  • Archetype – a recurring character (the jester, the best friend)
  • Stereotype – reductive, often harmful (cop, dumb blonde)
  • Round character – one with depth and dimension
  • Flat character – one who stays static (i.e. James Bond)
  • Protagonist – main character and decision-maker
  • Antagonist – primary opponent or foe in the story
  • Secondary – a passing character uses for specific purpose

We did archetype characters back in Episode 45 (yeah, it’s been that long ago) where we tried to separate the archetype from the stereotype. We also did strictly feminine archetypes in Episode 72 where we talked about the virgin, the mother, and the madwoman – that episode talked about the femme fatale and the damsel in distress, too.

Then we did The Patriarchy and Male Character Cliches in Episode 150 and Character Arcs in Episode 165.

So this is the first time we’ve talked roles in the story and what’s expected of each character. Moreover, what each story needs from its characters in order to be a good story.

Segment 3

Okay, so for the Protagonist:

  • How and when do we know this is who this character is? – pretty much immediately. This is the person walking on set right away. Unless you’re doing a Gatsby thing where we see the protagonist from afar.
  • How much backstory do we get about this person? What is the purpose of the backstory? The relevant stuff, not more than necessary, but definitely enough.
  • What role does the character play in the story? Main character, this is the one who makes decisions and drives the plot, or at least it’s the character we’re watching experience the plot in the closes vicinity.
  • What is the character’s relationship with the other characters? Other characters are either helpers or hindrances for the protagonist as he pursues his goal.
  • Is the character static or dynamic? In character arc books, the character is dynamic; if it’s a flat arc book, then the character is static – that doesn’t mean he doesn’t make choices, it just means he isn’t changed by them.

And for the Antagonist:

  • How and when do we know this is who this character is? – pretty quickly, if not right away unless the antagonist is hidden. This is the trick of the Lisa See books, the main character continually mis-identifies her antagonist. What is the importance of when the antagonist is introduced and how?
  • How much backstory do we get about this person? What is the purpose of the backstory? – enough to know why he/she wants something that is antithetical to what the protagonist wants.
  • What role does the character play in the story? – obstacles, hindrances to the protagonist
  • What is the character’s relationship with the other characters? – so many possibilities here, they are also probably helpers or obstacles to the antagonist in the opposite way from the protagonist. Can you think of some characters meant to help the protagonist who end up helping the antagonist instead? Han and Leah are the bait for Luke in Empire. We frequently see side characters as weaknesses for their protagonists.
  • Is the character status or dynamic? – the best antagonists are dynamic whether that means they get progressively more ruthless or whether that means they redeem themselves, we want to see the lengths to which the antagonist will go to prevent the protagonist from getting what he wants.

Segment 4

Have you ever read those characters that leap off the page? The ones you can’t forget even after you’ve finished the book? How do we create those? Try this (link):

  • Justify the character’s reason for existence by establishing the character’s story goal and motivation
  • Make sure the character has both strengths and flaws
  • Give the character an external and internal conflict
  • Decide whether the character is static or dynamic
  • Give the character a backstory
  • Develop the character’s external characteristics to make them distinguishable
  • Make the character stand out with distinctive mannerisms
  • Do your research to make the character believable
  • Steer clear the biggest character development mistake – making the character too perfect (we did an episode on that, too. Looking at you, Mary Sue.).

There are also these tools available to you (link).

Are any of these really any worse than our 200+ episodes claiming to know the best way or at least a way of doing this writing thing? Art is never easy. Good art is certainly never easy. Keep writing. You’ll get better. We promise.

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