Friday, February 19, 2010

Love Your Characters

photo by Jenna

We started talking about it in yesterday's plot is conflict post. If plot is the mechanism by which your protagonist is forced up against her deepest fears and/or desires (tm Steve Almond), then we must know our characters deeply in order to understand what they fear and desire. To quote Grub Street instructor Sue Williams:

So love your characters, no matter how dark. Know what they care about. Put what they care about in peril. And you've got yourself a plot. The plot ends when you find a resolution (even if it's not a pleasant one).

To illustrate this point in class, we then read excerpts from Thomas Harris' The Silence of the Lambs. (Remember, this is the Monsters & Mayhem class, so we're focusing on the dark underbelly of fiction.)

Hannibal Lecter is a perfect example of a beloved, yet monstrous, character. Harris must have loved Lecter, because we loved Lecter. And not just because he's a fun and charming love-to-hate-him kind of fellow. We REALLY root for him: to help Clarice solve the crime, to build that emotional connection with her, to get free... I was in a movie theater where the entire audience (including me) cheered because he was going to "have an old friend for dinner." Let's all admit it: that ain't right.

And yet it is. We don't love Lecter just because he's charming and has good taste in wine. We love him because he has qualities of real virtue: unlike the nasty little Dr. Chilton, he is not petty or hypocritical. (Indeed, in the excerpts we read in class, we see both these characters interacting with our heroine Clarice, and it is certainly not Chilton we want to have guiding her. Lecter is evil, but Chilton is a jerk.) And we can empathize with many of the things Lecter cares about... freedom, an intellectual challenge, and Clarice herself.

So take a minute. Get inside the head of some of your least lovable characters, and find something to admire, to envy, to respect. Find out where their heart lies, because they have one, even if it has been twisted by experience, or by fate.

What do your characters care about? What do your antagonists care about? What would happen if you tried to take those things away from them?


  1. Good points, Carrie. And I love the example of Hannibal Lecter! He was always my fav character in Silence of the Lambs.

    My main character cares about fulfilling her father's dying wish. My antagonist cares about fulfilling his goal of punishing those he feels responsible for his wife's murder three decades ago.

    The point of the story is how those two goals conflict with each other and how the MC has been manipulated toward achieving hers while preventing the antagonist from achieving his.

  2. I like X-Men's Magnito for this; raised in a Nazi camp, so he's angry & war-like, and easily sympathetic!

  3. Once I'm done my WIP, I'm awfully tempted to write a dark fantasy from the POV of the bad guy. It's not done nearly often enough, and I'd love the challenge of making the reader care for a rotten (though charming) bastard. So... yes. I agree. :)

  4. People always forget to give the antagonist a motive. It's one of the most common problems in literature and across all media.

    I really liked the Hannibal Lecter example. We need more villains like that.

  5. oh I'm LOVING my characters.. real people make the best ones.. breathing thoughts and imaginations into them.. absolutely the most fun I've had in ages.

    Ages I tell you :)

  6. Excellent post! I always love the pictures you include.

    I absolutely love it when books and movies make bad guys likable. It shows that human beings are complex.

  7. Great post. You're right. Antagonists are people too and should be handled as such.

    My antagonist is a decent guy who cares about doing the right thing, following God's law, and enforcing the laws. Not exactly the stuff villains are made of, but he's steadily and with the best intentions out to get in the way of my MC and her friends.