A couple of weeks ago I penned a piece on what I felt were my basics in crafting a good character. But what exactly is a good character? Or a strong character? Aren’t these adjectives bringing connotations with them that apply unnecessary baggage to the concept? Villains can be good characters. Weaklings can be strong characters. Here we are, writers who make a living (or at least make a studied hobby) of expressing ourselves through words, and yet after all this time, what the hell, exactly, are we even talking about?
I suppose at the core there’s that idea I touched on of a character being somehow relatable to the audience. There’s some facet we recognize in ourselves or in others of our experience that we can cling onto, core elements and archetypes of the human condition. Yes, I just used the phrase “the human condition” unironically, feel free to virtually punch me in the face. Ow. Virtual pain. But listen, it’s not that far removed a concept from when I was studying acting. As an actor your task is bringing a character written by someone else to a semblance of life, but no one requires you to have personal experience of, say, murdering someone, much less committing suicide. Putting a successful suicide on your resume seems like something that would be a detriment to your career, at least in this world.
So you have to fudge things. To a certain extent personal experience may help with authenticity, but more often than not, you’re going to be searching within yourself for the part of your own experience that’s closest to the situation. You find that angry part of you, that scared part, that grieving part, and coax it forwards. As weird as it sounds, you have methods like remembering the shattering grief you felt when your favorite pet died and using that as the gateway to the tears you’ll sob every night as your Lear staggers under the weight of his dear Cordelia’s corpse.
And if you do it right, the audience will connect with that. Again the chances are that most of them wouldn’t have the personal experience of losing a child, especially under such horrible circumstances, but they can empathize with the situation. In fact it’s exactly this sort of empathy which drags us into stories and makes us crave them, safely experiencing triumphs and tragedies through a vicarious vector.
I once compared writing to being a director wrangling (at times ornery) actors through the story. But another truth is that ultimately, you represent both director and actor, and the “strength” of your characters will depend at least in part on your ability to relate to them. And through them.