Saturday, November 24, 2012

Third: Villains Need Love Too

Here's the third reason you need to know what a character wants more than anything:
3. When I say “every character,” I mean every... with some minor exceptions.
As a general rule, since you want every character to seem real, you need to know what they all want. Yes, all of them.

Even the bad guys.

This is one place where most writers fail at one time or another. It can be very easy to invest yourself in the hero, to give him a passion that you identify with, and make him seem very real... and then make a two-dimensional villain. Or perhaps you find the villain to be the most interesting character in your story, so you turn him into a fully-rounded character... and then turn him loose to face a boring hero with a paste-on smile.

Either case is a sure ticket to a failed story.

Every character in the story wants something. You don’t have to put anywhere near the work into a secondary character that you put into a main character, but knowing what each character wants goes a long way toward making your story more gripping and your characters more memorable. (Remember this, because failure to do so — to give each major character in the story a passion — is responsible for maybe 80 to 85% of our difficulties when it comes to developing a story idea.)

Now, there is one exception to this rule. This minor exception is, appropriately enough, the minor (or walk-on) character. This is a character who appears only briefly in the story, perhaps as part of the background, or is a character that we don’t really want people to care about. An obvious example might be someone whom our main character meets on the street and asks for directions. But on occasion this character plays a larger part, which requires a defter touch.

For my money, the classic example is Igor in the movie Van Helsing. Igor exists primarily as comic relief and the writers didn’t want us to like him; in fact, they wanted us to enjoy it when he met his end during the climactic fight at the end of the movie. So how did they do this?

They avoided giving him any depth by making him a character with no goals; he just does what he’s told.

In one particularly humorous moment early in the movie, Igor is seen with what I can only describe as a gigantic electric cattle prod, and he’s using it on a werewolf. When Count Dracula asks him, “Why are you torturing that poor creature?” Igor replies, with a shrug that implies it should be self-evident, “It’s what I do.”

While such a two-dimensional character may work well as comic relief, it’s unforgivable to treat a major character with the same lack of respect. Give all your major characters a driving passion, and you’ll have gone a long way toward making your characters come alive on the page.

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