Conflict is the rocket fuel for any good story, but how your characters react to that conflict is what provides direction and resonance for the tale. Of course, how your characters react hinges almost completely on what kind of people they are.
And defining what kind of people they are hinges solely on you, and your ability to intimately know their motivations.
Are you doing everything you can to understand the players in your story? It’s harder than most new writers think. The best characters are complicated, even if the conflicts they’re facing aren’t. They must do and say and think things that are clouded in the very same nigh-arcane thought processes that you and I have. Pieces of their hearts must be cracked or broken — just like ours. They must be more than chess pieces on a game board. They cannot merely react to events; they must contribute to them.
This is hard stuff to write … and yet that’s the brass ring, baby, that’s the stuff that turns potboiler page-turners into bestsellers. Imagine King’s The Stand or Bag of Bones without those novels’ brilliantly-realized characters. Those stories never would have risen above their high concept plot hooks — never would’ve become the miraculous, special Somethings that transcended readers’ expectations. Without such remarkable characters, two of King’s greatest books would have been merely Good.
(A prayer to the Writing Gods: May we all be blessed to write one Good book during our careers. Amen.)
By my reckoning — and hell if I know if it’s true; I’m always growing and learning as a taleteller — the secret to making a Good story a Great one is to know more about your characters than your reader. This sounds insultingly elementary, but recall that we’re tasked with building people solely with our words, people packed with as much infuriating complexity and contradictions as ourselves and our best friends. Even simpletons go deep, man … we have all kinds of gears whirring in our little mind machines, most of which we can’t fathom what makes them go.
Permit me a real world example: I don’t like to be told no. I bristle at its finality. I can think of a dozen-dozen reasons why this emotional tic may have made itself manifest, but can’t precisely pinpoint its origin. It’s certainly helped forge me into the man I am today, but its source is buried under thirty-odd years of living, memories and just being. And when it bangs on its cellar ceiling with a broomstick, I usually put my ear to the floor.
The major players in your story must have similar subterranean motivations, and ideally provide such curiosity-sparking mysteries for your readers. Perhaps you eventually reveal what makes those gears whir — in a revelatory flashback, for instance, or a final, crucial sliver of information presented in act three — or perhaps you don’t. What’s important is that you must know what makes them tick (and tic), and slyly weave these details into your narrative.
Don’t put it all on the page. Hold a few of those cards close, damned close, to your vest. And understand that if your entire knowledge of your characters is what your readers directly experience on the page, you may have written a Good story … but probably not a Great one.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s tallkev