Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Heroes and Villains

I was thinking about story and characters today, as I sat on my front porch feeding the neighborhood squirrels. There’s the fat one. My husband calls him “Buddy” because he’s so friendly. Buddy has no fear of humans. He’ll come to the edge of the porch, stand up and wait for us to throw him a peanut, then either eat it right there or run off under the shade of a tree to enjoy his treat, before coming straight back for the next one. He will also come onto the porch when the front door is open and look in, waiting for us to feed him.
There’s the greedy one. When I’ve fed Buddy, ‘Greedy’ will come out and watch. I can throw a peanut straight out to him, and he’ll ignore it to chase Buddy for his.
Then, there’s the timid one. It took him a while to get used to taking peanuts from us. We’d throw one down to him in the yard, he’d take it, then run and hide while he ate it. We’d throw next peanut a little closer to the porch. “Timid” would stand there wringing his tiny paws and staring at the peanut for several moments before he would venture the few inches closer to get it.
Now, Timid comes into the garden near the porch to get his treats, but he never approaches as close as Buddy does. The biggest motivation for him probably was the blue jay that often stole peanuts while Timid stood contemplating the risk of getting closer.
Things have changed over time. Now, Greedy comes, almost as close as Buddy does and no longer chases him. We have three squirrels hooked on peanuts and a following of blue jays that await their own treats. It’s costing us a bag or two of raw, in-the-shell peanuts a week, but we have fun. And it makes me think about writing.
Okay, everything makes me think about writing. The squirrels prompted me to think of how important character is to a story
No matter what kind of story you write, it’s usually driven by character. From Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea to Stephen King’s The Stand, the character, his choices and the changes that take place in his basic personality are what drives the story to a satisfying conclusion—or doesn’t
Of course, a story must have other elements. A good character without a good story to tell adds up to very little. Story without conflict usually equals zero. However you begin a piece of writing, whether you start with a good story idea or a good character, other elements have to be there to drive the story along.
What makes a good character? The answer is implicit in one succinct phrase: Heroes have flaws, and villains have reasons.
It took me a long time to realize what that means. Heroes are normal human beings thrust into a situation in which they must act. Villains are not necessarily all bad. They might be basically good people, even heroes in any other set of circumstances. But whatever the case, they have a reason to do what they do. A story’s villain can be driven by greed, revenge, lost love, . . . the list goes on and on.
A really good villain must have qualities the reader can identify with, just as the hero must have flaws the reader can identify with. The villain’s reasons lead to his downfall. Overcoming at least one of his flaws makes the hero a hero and a sympathetic character.
I don’t necessarily sympathize with the squirrels and blue jays I feed in the front yard, but they do set me to wondering about what motivates them to choose bravery over fear to gain the treasure of the peanut they seek.
There are many other aspects of character, but the subject is too big to tackle in one blog and there is only so much inspiration hungry squirrels can evoke, even in me. The rest of the subject will have to wait for another blog on another day.


novacoker said...

Mom! This has been the best blog so far! I am truly inspired as I sit here in my bath, laptop perched precariously close to the edge, with the kitty trying to lick the bath bubbles, I too find myself at no loss for character inspiration with the four furry ones running around my house. But seriously, this really does inspire with characters I am trying to flesh out in my writing. Figuring out what makes them tick and staying true to that is sometimes difficult. It's hard not to have every character react the same way I would, I have to remember, they are not me! I will end this comment by giving a quick shout to that king of quirky character writers, John Hughes...may he rest in peace. What will Molly Ringwald do now?

"And so our stories go..." said...

Great,insightful post, Suzanne!