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Writing : The Importance of Good Characters

The Importance of Good Characters
By Alex Mason

A good story draws us in. A good story makes us, the reader, want to know what happens and want the right side to win. As I said last time, a good story creates an emotional connection with the reader. While last time I talked about the writing itself and how it is important to show, not tell, I alluded to the importance of characterisation in this process.

A well thought out, realistic character is essential to drawing in the reader because people relate to other people, even if they’re imaginary. This human connection makes the conflict at the heart of the plot relevant; it matters to us whether the protagonist overcomes the problems that befall him because we care about him and want him to succeed.

Of course in order for this connection to be made and in order for us to want him to succeed, the character must, to use a rather over-simplistic concept, be a ‘good guy’. We sympathise with people trying to do the right thing and feel sorry for them when they fail. This will to do right does not necessarily come from a high-minded sense of justice and righteousness, it may come from a deep sense of selfishness or simple pragmatism, be we still must feel that the character is on the right side of the fine line between good and evil, even if it’s only just.

This is not to say however that a good character should always do the right thing. Indeed a character that always does the right thing is both boring and unrealistic; we have difficulty connecting with him because he, quite simply, isn’t human. One of the defining features of humanity is our capacity to make mistakes, so a character who likewise makes mistakes is far more likely to appeal to us that one who does not.

Such flaws also allow for characters to drive the plot. A plot will, by necessity, contain some form of conflict and the best way for this conflict to come about is through some flaw in the protagonist. In order to resolve the plot, the protagonist must not only address the conflict, but the source of the conflict; himself and his own weakness. By the end of the story the protagonists should not only have won the battle, got the girl and saved the day, he should also have discovered something about himself and become a better person.

In order to truly understand and therefore empathise with a character, the reader has to not only know who he is, but where he has come from. Our personal history defines us, so in order to fully understand who someone is; we must know how they got there. While this exploration of a character’s past need not be in depth, a plot defining phobia or psychological problem needs to be explained in order for the reader to feel sorry for the character when it leads to his downfall. If we take as an example the film Batman Begins, Nolan shows us how Bruce Wayne develops the fear of bats that tortures him so much in the early part of the film and that he overcomes in becoming The Batman. We sympathise with Wayne because we understand why he is so afraid of bats.

Indeed we might look at Wayne in Batman Begins as an exemplar of a well characterised protagonist. At the start of the film we see Wayne imprisoned in Japan beating the living daylights out of criminals. We learn that he is doing this as an attempt to deliver justice to criminals and to punish the criminal class for the death of his parents. Wayne realises (with a little help) that this is not the way to go about delivering justice however and so joins The League of Shadows in order to pursue this goal more ethically. Upon learning that the League intends to destroy his home town, he flees and returns to Gotham. Having learned to conquer his fear with the League of Shadows he turns his own fear of bats on the criminals of Gotham and becomes The Batman. We can see here how Wayne’s own decisions and actions drive the plot of the film and how his character develops through the film. We also see how Wayne’s character got to where it is at the start of the film through a series of flashbacks.

The above discussion all applies to a protagonist. So long as your avoid over-simplifying your protagonist, making him too perfect or having him act jarringly inconsistently, it should not be too hard creating one with whom the audience can empathise. All the odds are in your favour here; the story is typically told from his perspective and he is typically fighting for the forces of good against evil (if we strip conflict down to its bare minimum). The real difficulty is presenting the antagonist or anti-hero in a similar way.

If you’ve seen Law Abiding Citizen then you should understand the moral conundrum felt at the uncomfortable realisation that Gerald Butler’s character has a point and you aren’t sure whether you want him to succeed in making it or not. Butler’s character is presented in such a way that, while we understand that he’s a royally messed up individual, we can’t help but sympathise with him because we understand how he got that way. We can see the injustice that has befallen him and so his actions, while immoral, are at least understandable.

Contrast this with the dehumanised villains we see most commonly in Fantasy and Science Fiction genres, who are typically dehumanised by ‘The Dark Side’ or ‘The Ring of Power’ or are simply not even human to start with, and you see why the former provides a much more complex and morally ambiguous story. At no point in the Lord of the Ring’s do we begin to sympathise with Sauron, because we have no reason to make a human connection with him. Even when writers try to explain why people turn evil; as Tolkien does with Saruman, they still end up being so comically villainous as to destroy any human connection that has been established.

They keys to a well characterised Antagonist are essentially the same as the keys to a well characterised Protagonist; well intentioned, but flawed, internally consistent, but most importantly in this case, well explained. For the audience to sympathise with an Antagonists it is vitally important that they understand why he is trying to cause such havoc. We might not necessarily agree with his point of view, but if we at least understand where he is coming from, he no longer appears to be an intangible object in the way of the protagonist’s progress towards victory, but rather a human who has suffered and has come to terms with the suffering in the wrong way.

We could look at the example of Jack in Golding’s Lord of the Flies as a well characterised Antagonist. At the beginning of the book Jack is arrogant and presumptuous, but tries to get along with the other boys on the island. As the story goes on he becomes more and more disillusioned with the improvised democracy that governs the island and is overcome by the exhilarating lure of hunting and ultimately killing. Jack eventually takes over control of the island and becomes something of a tyrant. His is a very human story that brings out, as a good antagonist should, the very worst in human nature. Jack is taken by the lure of power, both over the boys and over nature. His is a chilling story because it chimes so readily with some of the worst tyrants of human history; Stalin and Hitler for example both fell foul of the same temptations.

While a Protagonist’s story is one development, the Antagonist’s is one of degradation; as shown by Wayne and Jack respectively. Good Protagonists and good Antagonists should really come from the same mould; each human and each with flaws. While one works to recognise and eliminate the flaw, the other fails to do so. Indeed the best antagonists and the best conflicts often occur when one person is wronged (in his perception) by the protagonists and so seeks revenge for the wrong-doing.

So when you’re thinking about writing that novel, or even that short story, make sure that due attention is given to make the characters of your story interesting, original and, above all human. Pay attention to the flaws and how those flaws drive the conflict of the story, think about how that conflict leads the characters to develop and grow, and ponder how those flaws came about. Your characters are what make the reader care, they are the reason we allow ourselves to get sucked into a story and why we find ourselves yelling into our books or our tv screen. To put it simply, good characterisation is why there’s always a groan of anguish at the end of Inception when, well, you know what.

Alex Mason is currently at Oxford university studying Ancient History and then eventually plans to move onto a career in writing - if all goes to play (which it rarely does, he says). Read more of his work at

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