Well, I promised a post from Paul Davis, so here it is! And if you like his writing, check out his blog!
Throughout a story, characters develop to reveal to the reader who they are. The idea is to find out more about the human condition through these fictional creations. At other times, really we’re just looking for entertainment and to see if the protagonist will change in the required way to save the day. However, when we first meet the character, there is a state of normality.
In video games from my generation, role playing games often started with an average teenager in some village doing what any teenager would do: peek at beautiful women, kill insects, and cut grass. The character is naive, has few skill sets, and ultimately is happy where he is at. If the world never changed, he would marry the girl he “accidentally” peeked at, he would be a great hunter or farmer, kids would be involved, and he would die at an old age as a village elder.
We didn’t play the game for that life (unless you’re playing “The Sims”). We don’t pick up books that tell such mundane tales that we’ll likely live out ourselves. If Bilbo Baggins didn’t have his life invaded by a company of dwarves, we never would have read his story. We didn’t read about Hamfast Gamgee, Sam’s father, the gardener of Bilbo and other hobbits. We wanted action and adventure, not tips on how to have a green thumb.
So how does Bilbo and Frodo go from common, chunky, serene hobbits with only petty cares in the world to amazing adventurers? How does Sun Wukong in Journey to the West become more than a mischievous, no good, magical monkey? How did you go from being some kid dreaming of writing and thinking it could never happen to a writer on some level, living the dream?
Conflict. Characters, cities, beliefs, people, and so on, will not change without conflict. Take from your own life on this. Love was a beautiful adventure. There should be wonderful kisses, giggling walks through the park, romantic dinners, and whatever else you dreamed of. Then you date that first person, you give them your heart, you create those magical moments, and at a point they leave you, tired of the over the top romanticism. At that point you change. Your idea of love has been irrevocably altered for better or worse.
When a best friend betrays you and takes the third wheel in your group to the playoff game, you have reached a point of conflict. Will you remain friends and brush it off? Will you go to an equally amazing event and either heap coals of kindness in the hopes they will repent, or you can invite the third wheel and shove it in our former friend’s face.
Conflict changes us, or at least reveals something about our nature. It does the same with our characters. However, remember that a static character tells as much to the reader as a dynamic character. A static character will not change, no matter the adversity. A static character terrified of spiders may have to push a button to save his friend, but there are numerous spiders all over the button. Unable to change, the character allows fear to take over and loses his friend because he can’t push that button. A dynamic character does change and would push the button, capable of overcoming his character flaw.
When plotting your story, keep this in mind. If you plan nothing else, create a basic character and give him a flaw or two. Realize any real conflict, anything that will tell us truly about the integrity of the character, will test those flaws. You don’t need every obstacle to be based on those flaws, such as side stories, but have the key conflict revolve around what would show the character’s growth (or lack there of).
So I ask of you to create a character. Create one flaw for that character, then come up with a way to test that flaw. Write a short story on it and whether or not the character overcomes the flaw. This can be gambling, insecurity, snakes, the dark, Aunt Gertrude pinching his cheeks, or whatever else you come up with. Then decide whether or not the character will overcome. Reflect upon what that says about your character (and scarily enough, sometimes you).