Musings on character

Today I’ve been thinking about character. Or rather, how to write a great character. Really, how do you create a character that resonates? One that people remember years after their first encounter. One they return to again and again. One whose birthday they remember.

Today is Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s birthday.

I’ll admit, I didn’t remember Buffy’s birthday myself. Twitter reminded me. But she’s definitely a character that has stuck with people through the years, myself included. The last episode aired in May 2003, and almost eight years later, people still think about it. That’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment for everyone involved.

But why? Granted, anyone who was a fan of the show will tell you that it was an ensemble piece. Great dialog, acting, plotting, special effects…I could go on and on. But the show isn’t really what I’m talking about today. I want to talk about character.

I’m a big fan of novels, book series, and television series. I think it’s because you get to settle in with the characters for a good long while. You watch them change and grow. You watch their actions leave lasting impacts on their lives. If they don’t, then it’s probably not a very good story. Because character is at the heart of story.

With a character like Buffy, you get a masterpiece. Sure, there’s the superficial allure: she’s a pretty cheerleader who hunts monsters. But beyond that, on the allegorical side, she walks right on the edge of the knife, the dividing line between feminine (pretty cheerleader) and masculine (fights monsters), adulthood (responsible for the safety of others) and childhood (a teenager who just wants to have fun with her friends), love (her boyfriend, friends, family) and hate (so often they become monsters themselves). Beyond the allegorical, she deals with issues that all teenagers deal with–fights with friends, struggles to fit in at school, trying to grow up. It’s just that the storyteller puts her in a position where her decisions on these everyday issues impact not just on her, but potentially the whole world.

If this was it, if allegory was all there was to this character, she still wouldn’t succeed–she still wouldn’t resonate with readers (and neither would similar characters, like Harry Potter). She needs to have flaws. Not dramatic Achilles Heels, but rather, those small issues that we all have, that make us human and sometimes lead us to make mistakes. Buffy has a superficial streak and abandonment issues. Harry Potter has a need to be the hero. These flaws make them vulnerable, but we can relate to them.

Still, a character would just be an idea without the flesh that shapes them. The way they speak, move, breathe, think…. Every sentence the writer adds must work to define this shape. Consistently. And consistency doesn’t even matter if it isn’t done well. If the dialog doesn’t have an actual voice. If the movement is jumbled or stumbles the plot. If the thought and action inexplicably don’t match. What do you have then? I think this flesh is perhaps the most important part. You can have great characters without the allegory, but you can’t have them without dialogue, action and motivations that move them. Otherwise they are statues. Or caricatures.

Doesn’t it seem impossible now? Look at all those piece, the stars a writer needs to align. And then, as the story moves forward, realign. And align again. The more I think about it the more daunting it seems.

But then I’ll think about those great characters, the ones that have stayed with me since I met them, and I think it seems worth it to keep trying. If those other writers hadn’t kept trying, think of all the great fictional friends we would have missed out on.

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