I’ll start with the usual MW caveat, though I wonder if I even need to bother. In talking about any aspect of writing we have to remember that there is no single right way to do anything. This is particularly important to remember when it comes to character work, since this often tends to be one of the more idiosyncratic aspects of writing a book or story.
I have written before about developing characters and doing the background work that I find necessary to make them alive for me as I write. You might want to check out this post. And maybe this one, too. I know as well that others have written extensively about character in this space, and those posts are worth re-reading, too. Character is, for me at least, the most important part of everything I write; it is THE critical factor in whether or not I enjoy the books and stories I read. I don’t think you can think about this stuff too much.
And so, I ‘ve been thinking about character in a slightly different light for the past few days, and I thought I would share. It seems to me that most effective, memorable characters share certain attributes that lend drama and purpose to the narratives of which they’re a part. In the briefest, simplest terms, those attributes are: Secret, Wall, Loss, Desire. Pretty vague, I know. Let me explain, and then I’ll give examples.
A secret is just what it sounds like. There is something in the character’s life story or present circumstance that s/he cannot share because s/he believes (rightly or wrongly) that revealing this secret will do great harm. Or, it may be that the secret is being kept from the character, and its revelation to him or her is a major plot point (think King Arthur or Luke Skywalker). Sometimes the character begins the story with the secret already in place; at other times the secret develops as the story does. But more often than not, it’s there, and it’s a significant factor in the narrative.
I use the term wall as shorthand for some situation or set of circumstances that sets the character apart from those around him. Again, this can be in place as the story begins, or it can develop in the story. I just finished re-reading Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, in which the lead character, Richard Mayhew, starts out with a fairly mundane life. But in the course of the early chapters, he does something that makes him an outcast, invisible (literally and figuratively) to those who used to be his friends and colleagues. The wall might not always be that dramatic and literal, but more often than not, it’s there. (Again, examples to follow.)
Often a contributing factor to either the secret or the wall is some form of deep, painful loss or regret. Many lead characters carry scars that influence their decisions, their emotions, their ability to overcome the obstacles thrown in their path during the course of the stories of which they’re a part.
And more often than not, these characters are driven by deep-seated desire for something that has been missing from their lives. Yes, they might have wants and needs that are simpler, more superficial — they might want to find a treasure, or defeat a rival or nemesis. They might want to get the girl, or the guy (or both — I’m open-minded). But they also want something bigger, deeper, more fundamental to who and what they wish to be by the time we reach the end of their adventures.
Secret, wall, loss, desire. Let’s see if this really holds up.
The vast majority of us have read the Harry Potter books, and Harry is a perfect example of a hero who fits this framework. In the first book, Harry’s secret is fairly obvious, and it fits in the King Arthur/Luke Skywalker model. He’s a wizard (“A thumpin’ good’un!”), but he doesn’t know it, at least not at first. In subsequent volumes, his secret changes — he’s hearing odd voices that speak of killing people, or he’s part of the Order of the Phoenix and the leader of Dumbledore’s Army, or he’s using the Half-Blood Prince’s book, or he’s helping Dumbledore look for horcruxes, or . . . well, you get the idea. The wall, though, remains the same throughout the books. Harry is THE Harry Potter, and his celebrity is both a blessing and a curse. There’s no doubt though that it sets him apart, isolates him, even from his closest friends. He has lost his parents before he even knew them (as you’ll see, this is a fairly common source of loss), and this serves not only as the loss, but also as a means of making the wall that much higher and stronger. And his loss also feeds his deepest desire, which is not only to defeat Voldemort, but also to find happiness with a real family. He enjoys hints of this with the Weasleys throughout the series, but [Spoiler Alert] it is only with the ending of the final book that he truly achieves it.
Other examples? Let’s take Jane Yellowrock, the heroine of Faith’s Skinwalker series. Her secret is that she shares her body and mind with Beast, the mountain lion who serves as her alter ego. No one can know that Jane shifts into Beast’s form to hunt and to track those who elude Jane in her human form. Jane’s wall? Well, the secret serves as one. So does her Cherokee heritage, which sets her apart from most of those around her even when she’s not in cat form. And she’s a vamp hunter. In almost all ways, Jane is isolated, alone, even as she surrounds herself with allies and enemies, friends and the occasional lover. Her loss, like Harry Potter’s, dates back to her childhood: Jane is an orphan who was placed in a Christian school with other orphans and denied not only her family life, but also her Cherokee heritage. Her desire? Well, sure, it’s to kill vamps and not get killed herself. But as her love for Molly, Big Evan and their kids shows, she also longs to recapture some semblance of normal family life, even if she isn’t the settle-down-and-get-married type.
Ethan Kaille, of my (D.B. Jackson‘s) Thieftaker series, cannot reveal that he is a conjurer. In Massachusetts in the 1760s, people are still condemned and hanged as witches. Ethan must guard his secret or risk execution. He is isolated from those around him by the fact that he is a convicted mutineer who served more than thirteen years at hard labor. He has lost his youth, the one great love of his life, and is even maimed as a result of his incarceration. And he longs, above all else, for the peace and good fortune that he possessed before the Ruby Blade mutiny and his subsequent conviction, and that he knows he can never wholly regain.
Darwen Arkwright, of A.J.’s new middle reader series, has a secret as well. He has a magic mirror hanging in his room. At the beginning of Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact he doesn’t have it, but he gets it early in the book, and it drives nearly all of the action that follows. Darwen is isolated by dint of being British in the thoroughly American city of Atlanta. He has lost his parents and been uprooted from his home in England. And he longs simply to be thought of as normal, to have friends, to be something other than an object of derision among his classmates.
I could go on — so many other heroes fit this pattern — but I think you get the idea. Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that you should use Secret, Wall, Loss, Desire as a formula for creating characters. That would probably result in contrived, formulaic character work. But I would be willing to bet that most of your best characters already have attributes similar to these. And I would also guess that if you’re finding that your characters feel a bit flat, it may be that one or more of these elements is missing.
So how about it? Does your hero or heroine fit the model? Can you tell us about his/her secret, wall, loss, and desire?David B. Coe http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://magicalwords.net