I am always shocked when someone says they care more about the plot of the book than the characters. This boggles my mind to no end, because what’s the point if you don’t connect with the characters? I plan to do another post soon about the hero’s story arc, and to me that arc makes or breaks a story. But of course, I have to wonder…
I mean seriously, if you make me love characters enough, I will devour scenes where they just sit around and talk, but I have to admit, plot is imperative to make the story move forward. Can the character have an arc without a real journey? But what do the journey and the arc matter if you don’t even care about the character in the first place?
When I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallowsit was just amazing to me how Rowling pulled this off. I had gotten to know these characters and were already attached to them from previous books, but through their circumstances they grow leaps and bounds just in this one book. Their journey felt complete.
Characters help connect me to the story. The plot moves the characters through an arc. And if the arc is successful and I see positive change on the other side (or really well executed negative change), then I am ultimately satisfied with the story.
Do you consider yourself more of a plot person or a character person? What do you think matters most in a story/character arc?
I was thinking about doing a top 10 list of favorite book characters I have been exposed to just this year (meaning not Austen or Austen-adaptation characters, since I’m already really familiar with them outside of their books, nor characters from continuing series that I have already read), and when I jotted down my list, I was surprised by how few books were represented.
From the Grisha trilogy: (1) Mal, (2) Alina, and (3) Sturmhond
From Harry Potter: (4) Harry Potter, (5) Ron, and (6) Hermione
From Seraphina: (7) Seraphina and (8) Kiggs
From Across a Star-Swept Sea: (9) Persis and (10) Justen
I’ve read more than four books/series with characters that were new to me this year, so why did the other characters just not stand out to me? What makes a character a favorite? Here are some things that I personally gravitate towards…
The reason why I have always liked Jo March (Little Women) so much was because I could relate to her. She was a tomboy who loved to write and act out stories. I wasn’t exactly a tomboy, but I was far from prissy, and I definitely related to her love of stories and writing. I often connect with characters who are writers, have a personality similar to mine, enjoy the same things I do, etc.
I know this can be vague, but I’ll explain what this means to me personally. I like people I can relate with, as mentioned above, but I also like people who balance me, or people who are just kind. And when it comes to book boys (or real-life guys for that matter), forget bad boys. I love the good guys, the sweet gentlemen. This is why I love Peeta so much, and root for Lincoln Lee in Fringe season 4. Good guys don’t finish last in my book! And then there are those people that are so likable because of their nature and good heart, like Cinna in The Hunger Games. With girls, a lot of time I find sweet, naive girls likable, like Cress, because they just seem so pure-hearted!
This doesn’t necessarily mean physically strong, but able to hold their own when times are tough. Obviously Katniss is an example of this, though she does have weak moments, but I think that’s also important because it’s human. I also think of both Alina and Mal in The Grisha Trilogy, who both struggle but are able to keep going, no matter how bad things get for them (and they get BAD). We root for characters who keep going.
I really, really, REALLY appreciate when a character is capable, when they can put the pieces together and figure things out, and I don’t feel the need to yell at them for their dumb decisions. Sometimes these characters are WAY smarter than me, like Sherlock Holmes, which I can appreciate, and sometimes their intelligence might feel more equal to mine, though they may be better versed in a particular area than I am. Either way, intelligence is always welcome as I don’t have to become so frustrated with the character!
Come on, we all love the characters with the clever one-liners. Flynn Rider, Han Solo, Carswell Thorne, Sturmhond, the list goes on. Who you calling scruffy-looking?
6. Otherwise Interesting
Some characters are just interesting in a way that I can’t describe. Sometimes they’re a bit eccentric or quirky, sometimes they have a haunting backstory, sometimes they just have that something that can’t be explained, like Effie or Caesar from The Hunger Games.
7. Positive Character Arc
Sometimes we don’t love a character from the start or might not understand them at first, but as we see them grow through their journey, they become likable, or we empathize with their plight and grow endeared towards them. Like with Jane Austen’s Emma, we see the main character learning from her mistakes and striving to be a better person in turn. By the end when she opens up her heart and accepts others, we in turn have grown to care for her.
For me personally, a character usually needs to have at least two or three of these traits for me to really latch onto them and continue to think fondly of them long after I finish their story.
What about you? What makes a character your favorite?
I was listening to a podcast review of Star Trek: Into Darkness and I was a little surprised to hear some of the people on the show say they felt some of the characters were inconsistent from who they were in the 2009 film. Likewise, I have also heard some complain that Tony Stark was inconsistent in Iron Man 3 compared to how he was before.
I disagree with both of these viewpoints, but it did get me to thinking about consistency in characters in stories (primarily from movie to movie). Just when is the character experiencing a natural change in their arc, and when is it just out of character? Personally, I found Elizabeth and Will wildly inconsistent in the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies as to who they were in the first one. But I know people who disagree. Why do some of us accept certain character changes and some of us not?
The Consistency of the Story
I think part of it is how you view the story overall. For instance, I thought the second POTC movie was a ridiculous rehash of jokes from the first and that the third movie got way too serious. The first story was such a fun romp and I felt the next two films deviated from what made the first one so good. Since I did not enjoy the plots of the story and the twists that were happening, I felt that the characters themselves were taking actions that were not consistent with how I viewed them in the first movie.
In the 2009 Star Trek film, Kirk is cocky and confident, much like Tony Stark is in Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and The Avengers. With Tony, I think we start to see him change in The Avengers, when he makes the decision to sacrifice himself (though ultimately he makes it out fine) to save all the others. In Iron Man 3, he is wrestling with what he experienced in that moment: being worried about Pepper, shocked by the fact that aliens are real, etc. I could see the thread of what happened. And he still certainly had plenty of Tony Stark moments.
With the Star Trek films, I admit it’s not as clear cut. At the end of 2009, Kirk gets the Captain’s chair at an extremely young age and with virtually no experience. In Into Darkness, he appears to be much the same, taking big risks with the belief that it will always work out fine. He gets lectured that it won’t always be fine, but none of that means much until he (SPOILERS for the rest of this paragraph) sees Pike die. Pike is like a father to Kirk, so his death really rocks his world. He wants to hunt down the man responsible, but he also has to learn what risks are necessary and which ones are not. It’s hard to fit so much change in a two hour film without it feeling too forced, but at the end Kirk makes a decision like Tony does. Maybe there could have been better ways to develop these two plot lines, but for me, they were fine. But I also embraced the entirety of their stories.
If a story is filled with plot holes and weird twists that no one believes, people are not likely to buy into what the character is doing either.
The Consistency of Voice
I was listening to another podcast called “Writing Excuses” (what can I say, I’m a podcast junkie), and in a recent episode they were discussing why the writing in The Avengers worked so well. One of the main things they praised about the movies was the consistent character voice, and for ALL the characters! But they said there were even a couple of times that the voice was not consistent but it was so well-played it didn’t matter. The big example of this was with Thor’s line about Loki being adopted. They said it was OK with them, even though it didn’t sound like something Thor would say, because the joke was perfect, it needed to be shared, and Thor had to be the one to deliver it.
I think this goes with the next point…
The Consistency in Tone
I think the example of Pirates of the Caribbean works well for this. I did not feel the tone of the second and third movies were not consistent with the first. And going back to The Avengers, though Thor’s joke was not consistent with his individual character voice, it was consistent with the tone of the movie and the dialogue in general.
This might be why some struggle with Iron Man 3 or Into Darkness, because both movies are a little darker than their predecessors. I personally do not find them to be such large departures, and I find the overall tones still consistent, but there is some change. I mean, among Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Avengers, and Iron Man 3, there are three different directors at work. But tone can change as the characters grow, it’s just a matter of balancing the change tone, character, and story in a way that is believable and trying to stay consistent in voice and other areas.
The Consistency in Back Story
It is extremely important for writers to remember what they (or other writers working on previous projects before them) have written about a character. Likewise, it’s important for the character to have actions that match up with their personal back story. Sometimes the writer may not know the back story for the character until a lot about the character has been written, but as long as it matches with the character’s behavior, that is fine. Kirk from the J.J.-verse is different from Roddenberry’s Kirk. This Kirk lost his father and thus grew up in a very different household. He had the same mother and he still lived in Iowa, but one major difference completely changed the way he was living his life. So when the 2009 and Into Darkness Kirk is more immature and more reckless than the original Kirk, it makes sense, because he didn’t have the same strong father figure.
When there’s a disconnect between a character’s past and their present, without a middle that connects the change between the two (which would be more backs story we would need), we find the whole character unbelievable.
But no matter how hard a writer tries to balance all of these things, not everyone is going to agree on what works and what doesn’t work. It is the nature of art.
What do you think? Who are characters that you believe show great consistency throughout their story arc? Who are some characters that you feel do not?