BELIEVABLE and engaging characters are essential to most successful stories.
While it is true that certain genres such as Action Adventure or Science Fiction adopt a more plot driven approach, others such as Romance, or Literary Fiction, are more character driven.
All stories, however, require convincing characters to complement an effective plot.
Pointers to building engaging characters.
As Lagos Egri reminds us, traits are important characteristics that define a personality in broad strokes – honesty, bravery, miserliness, nobility, steadfastness, cowardliness, and so on.
Importantly, most traits have a moral or ethical flavour. To act nobly, for example, is to act ethically, whilst to act in a cowardly manner is to be devoid of righteousness.
Additionally, engaging characters change and grow. They learn from events around them.
How does change affect existing traits? It reorders the hierarchical prominence of certain traits over others.
Typically, a traditional protagonist tends to have three or four positive traits and one negative one. This juxtaposition is essential in creating dynamic characters who experience internal conflict. A conflicted character is inherently more interesting than a static and stable one. Character change, on these terms, involves managing the emphasis of these traits.
In an “up ending” the protagonist de-emphasises his negative trait and accentuates his positive ones. In a “down ending”, the opposite happens. These changes typically happen at the structural turning points, particularly the mid-point. These are the moments where important events impact the character and cause him or her to respond. This allows the writer to craft character growth in a localised and manageable way.
In the film Knowing, John Koestler, an astrophysicist who believes in random chance rather than devine determinism, has to come to terms with the idea that the future is predetermined, when he discovers numerical data held in a time capsule buried fifty years previously, accurately predicts global accidents and disasters, and ultimately the end of the world.
This eventually causes John to in entrust his son’s future to a group of alien observers who offer to take the boy and his young friend Abby to another planet to ensure humanity’s survival. As a marker of his transformation, John reconciles with his father, a priest, after many years of alienation. His trait of skepticism has been kicked down the ladder by his newly promoted trait of faith, not in science this time, but in his belief that the aliens will secure his son’s future.
Traits have an ethical or moral flavour. They are fundamental to the formation and growth of engaging characters.