Character and Raison d’Être

You’ve heard the saying “there are no small roles, only small actors.”  Well, I argue the same is true of characters.  We’ve all read at least one book that had a “stock” character – someone following the formula for his archetype so closely that he was just dull; the disgruntled employee, the ditzy blonde or the immoral lawyer.  These types of characters add nothing to a story.  So why do writers smear an otherwise interesting book with them?

I think the problem is that writers see some characters as extras.  They’re like the poor ensigns in the original Star Trek series; disposable characters whose main function is to showcase the awesome power of the bad guys.  As soon as Kirk calls one to accompany the away team, the audience knows he’s never going back to The Enterprise.

Writing a book takes a long time.  I’m guessing that’s why authors lean on archetypes.  These out-of-the-box characters come readymade; they don’t require us to spend time figuring out what their motivation might be.  Bad guys wear black.  Period.

There is a place for this of course – children’s literature for example.  Young kids who are just learning how a story works, rely on archetypes.  That’s why Disney uses them so readily.  Stories for grown-ups however, require a bit more nuance.  And no, the bad guy wearing charcoal grey doesn’t cut it.

Most authors consider their main character; his likes/dislikes, where he works etc.  But few take the time necessary to develop the supporting characters.  They surround their hero with two-dimensional paper dolls.

If a character’s profession is central to the plot then his colleagues all provide opportunities to reveal information to the audience.  Why is a co-worker disgruntled?  What happened to him?  Moreover, what does it have to do with the story the author is telling?  If the answer is “nothing,” then I’d like to know why an editor didn’t kill him with a red pen.  Why show us a cynic if it doesn’t move the story forward?

However, a cynic who was once like our hero – a brilliant, young social worker determined to help the under-privileged – can be a wonderful way to illustrate society’s prejudices and the challenges our hero faces.  He can also foreshadow what our hero might become in time.  If we’re given a glimpse as to why he’s become disgruntled, then he has depth and enriches the entire story.

Remember, an author’s job is to convince the reader that the world she’s creating is real, and that the people living there exist.  That’s the contract between author and audience – I promise to entertain you with a totally believable yarn, if you spend twenty bucks on my book.  Readers always keep up their end of the bargain.  Writers sometimes fall short.

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