Tuesday, August 14, 2007


Characters play such a vital role in storytelling, arguably the most critical role. I have recently discovered that some of the best writers bring their characters out fully developed. I don’t mean to say that everything you want to know about a character is spelled out in the first few sentences. I simply mean that the character is fully realized before he/she/it ever appears.

Last night I was watching an old episode of Naruto, and I was really intrigued by the emergence of Orochimaru. He appears in disguise at first, so you learn about him before you really know who he is. Looking back at this episode after seeing so much of him later, it’s quite impressive at how developed he is when he first comes on the scene.

Masashi Kishimoto (the writer of the series) has proven himself to be quite brilliant, especially with characterization. Keeping to the example of Orochimaru, Kishimoto has broken a cliché with villains that I didn’t even realize existed. Typically, there’s the cool factor of villains, that they make evil look appealing. Other stereotype villains include the child who wasn’t loved, any kind of dark lord, or anyone who cackles after a few lines of dialogue. Orochimaru, by contrast, has a creepiness to him that so many villains lack. I don’t want to identify with him, and I certainly don’t see any cool factor to him. He’s repulsive in an almost perverse way, and it’s beyond dialogue; it’s in his appearance and how he moves. It’s enjoyable to have a fictional villain that I don’t like at all.

As for applying all of this to writing, I think it’s important to understand your characters before you use them. It seems easier to me to already know a character than to just throw down Generic Protagonist A, let the story develop this character, then go back on an edit and fix any discrepancies. Even better is to write a simple story that just involves the new character that you can tweak until he/she/it feels complete, almost like a narrative dossier. We wouldn’t go on a trip with someone we don’t know, so why, as writers, should we go through a story with a character we don’t know?

1 comment:

James Enge said...

Zelazny used to write a story (not for publication) to get to know the protagonist of any novel he wrote; he talks about this somewhere in Unicorn Variations, I think.

I agree that the writer should know the protagonist (or other important characters) before they step onto the stage. It's probably a mistake, as you say, to throw a lump of generic person-stuff onto the page and then try to lick it into shape. Different kinds of people seek out different kinds of experiences; they react different ways to the same stimuli. So, as fantasist John Hocking says, "Plot is character."

On the other hand, sometimes a character will show up and start talking and doing stuff and the writer will be as bemused as if he were reading over his own shoulder. We don't want to shut the door on those guys; sometimes they're pretty interesting. And the odds are that they really aren't unknown to us; we just don't know yet how well we know them.