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Character Counts

Character Counts

Quick, define Batman in one sentence. Now sum up Spider-Man in a short phrase. Now do the same for Spider Jerusalem. I'm willing to bet that wasn't any trouble at all.

Why not? Because of character.

Now think of the best Spider-Man or Batman or Transmetropolitan story you've read. It probably built on that foundational character description or perhaps twisted it off in a unique direction.

Storytelling begins and ends with character, and it has lots of character sprinkled throughout. Just ask most any new writer to tell you about their latest story, and see if he or she doesn't start prattling off plot points to you instead. Why? Because we've bought into the fallacy that plot is story. But story is so much bigger than mere plot alone. It's the symbiosis between plot and character, and failure on either point will result in a weaker story. Think about it. You can keep the same basic plot outline, drop in a different character, and you've suddenly got a completely different story.

For example, imagine:

  • Robin Hood as the hero of The Matrix.
  • Spider-Man in No Man's Land instead of Batman
  • Chance Falconer in Lucy's role in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.

The new character begins to reshape the plot. Plot should always be about character. Character should always help direct the plot. If you find that you can use characters interchangeably in your plots, then perhaps you don't know your characters well enough.

Some unofficial definitions to keep us on the same page:

Plot: what your characters do

Character: who your characters are

Story: the mysterious, magical something that happens when plot and character get together and raise a family


Self, meet Mr. and Ms. Character

How well do you know the characters you're writing about? What are their birthdays? Favorite colors? First jobs? How do they feel about their parents? Are they book-smart or people-smart? If you don't know these kinds of things about them, I dare say you don't really have a character at all. You have a caricature instead.

Many beginning writers make the mistake of assuming that for short stories, such as anthology pieces, they don't have to know as much about the characters because they only have to fill up 6-10 pages with a story. If anything, the opposite is true. Because you have so few pages to make a reader care about your characters, you have to work even harder at it and know even more about them. In longer, ongoing stories you may sometimes have the luxury of developing and revealing character as you go (though you still shouldn't stray too far from the foundational point of who your character is), but in short, break-in pieces, you had better have a solid understanding up front of who your protagonists and antagonists are.

More definitions:

Protagonist: the character the story is about

Antagonist: the character who keeps getting in the way of the protagonist getting what he, she, or it wants

Here are a few suggestions for helping you "fill in the blanks" on your characters:

  • Fill out a job interview on all major characters (don't actually apply for the job however, as that's crossing the line, okay)
  • Take an online psychological survey or quiz as one of your characters
  • Interview your characters about their pasts and aspirations
  • Fill out a credit application for each of your major characters (again, don't mail it in, as you'd probably just keep getting junk mail in their names after that)
  • For all characters, major and incidental, make a list of what they want in life, what they're willing to do to get it, and at what price are they willing to stop pursuing it
  • Visualize them (for example, I've always thought of Fishnet Angel as Drew Barrymore if she were about two inches taller)
  • Give them quirks (a limp, a penchant for carrying but not smoking a cigar, a collection of clown memorabilia, a phobia of the color red)

Bleeding your characters onto the page

Now that you've done all the hard work of knowing what your characters want and who they are, realize that you'll never get it all into your story. Never. The more you understand them and know who they are, the more you'll always want to put that one extra tidbit into a story. Resist that urge to overstuff your story.

But how do you put their character into the story?

1. Character begins with setting. Where is your character in this story? How does he or she feel about being there?

  • If they're in an unfamiliar setting, what is their body language like?
  • If they're at home, what is the décor?
  • If they're in a familiar setting, what is their attitude about it?

2. Character continues with action. What do they actually do, both pivotal and incidental actions?

  • When frightened, does he go to the comfort of a cigarette?
  • When in charge, does she stand straighter than when following?
  • When alone, does he pull his coat up tighter around his neck and face?
  • When in a fight, does she react or throw the first punch?

3. Character is revealed by dialogue or the lack of it. Don't forget that silence is a way of speaking too.

  • Does he use big words to impress but not use them accurately?
  • Does she speak boldly in the face of danger?
  • Does he clam up and get quiet when in battle?
  • Does she chatter on about nothing when she's nervous?
  • Is he direct when speaking or does he talk around what he wants to say?

4. And finally, characterization can be strengthened when your players do something uncharacteristic. When a shy child stands up to the villain or a heroic figure runs away from a fight, it reveals something new and unexpected about them. It defies the one-dimensional characterization with which comics are often labeled.

Remember, these are only suggestions, not rules. There is not right or wrong way to develop your characters. These are just some of the things I've tried that have helped me in both prose and comics writing. The only wrong approach I've found is not to consider your characters at all.

Now it's your turn. Look at the latest story you've been working on. See where your characters live and breathe for you. Then find where they don't and do what it takes to beef up their character.