Success factors of Storytelling (Part 6): Analysing the “WHO””

This will be the sixth and last second post for this series, the last being a story which integrates all the concepts learnt (which will be the next post).

Before reading further, please click on the links below to read the earlier posts to get a better picture of the concepts mentioned previously:

Success Factors of Storytelling (Part 1): Start with the “WHY”

Success Factors of Storytelling (Part 2): Exploring the “WHAT”

Success Factors of Storytelling (Part 3): Exploring the “HOW”

Success Factors of Storytelling (Part 4): Let’s look at a story

Success Factors of Storytelling (Part 5): Investigating the “Where” and “When”

When it comes to the “WHO”, we are basically looking at the characterisation of individuals. There are many characters within a novel. While short story writing does not require an extensive number of characters, there should still be two or more characters within the story to make it come alive. However, that is not to say that increasing the number of characters in the story will make it more interesting. On the contrary, “overloading” the story with a large number of characters only dilute the significance of these characters – resulting in a story that usually ends up being more complex and characters becoming more shallow.

There should be a common understanding among writers that each and every character within the story – regardless of the “screen time” given to them  – should serve a purpose. There is a saying that everybody who comes into our lives teaches us something. This is very true and as writers, we should let this truth manifest in the crafting and weaving of our stories – be it based on reality or imaginary. All characters should be treated with equal respect and importance in any story. We can see the significance of minor characters strengthening the story most  strongly in romantic comedies, where the lead character’s best friends are often the highlights of the movie at certain points in the films, providing light-hearted moments where intense emotions are experienced.  In a nutshell, all writers should be egalitarians. Only when writers do justice to all characters will their stories truly shine.

Characters can primarily be broken down into three types:

1. Lead characters

2 Supporting Character

3. Villains

Let’s discuss this one by one:

  • Lead Characters:  These character are usually limited to one individual (just like Sherlock Holmes) – or at most two (just like the two brothers in “The Hardy Boys” series). But then again, there are often exceptions (just like King Aragorn, Legolas, Frodo, Gandalf etc in “Lord of the Rings). They are usually the focus of the story and most writers spent most of their time narrating their every movement and thought. Much thoughts have to be given to these lead characters because they should be the alluring factor in the story that draw readers. Most memorable lead characters have complex personalities and some are downright enigmatic. It is not advisable for a lead character to be totally saintly (i.e., he or she is a totally good person with  no flaws and unimaginable virtues that anyone who sees them will bow down in awe. Lead characters will have no problems with their lives and always have an optimistic attitude). A character who holds such noble qualities is admirable but not realistic.  Nobody in real life can fit that mold and because of this, readers will feel detached and indifferent to such ridiculous caricatures. However, give the lead characters soul, grant them a great goal to pursue in their lives, throw them some seemingly insurmountable challenges along their way, provide them with helpful companions and show their inner, emotional dilemma and you have a strong lead character that readers will surely root for. Why? Because readers are able to relate to them – no different from seeing them in the flesh. Only when a writer is able to create such a lively and relatable characters will their stories transform into masterpieces.
  • Supporting characters: But having interesting and memorable lead characters is only half the writing journey of writers. Supporting characters are required in the story to enliven the atmosphere and create the required ambience. It is important that supporting characters should not outshine the lead characters in terms of their “screen time” as well as their actions and thoughts  while at the same time, they need to provide emotional support to the lead characters, provide a listening ear, lend a helping hand when necessary and more important, supporting characters should bring out the required qualities in the lead characters at pivotal points in the story. It almost seems contradictory that supporting characters should do little and yet do so many things all at once. It is indeed a delicate balance and some writers might find that creating and deciding the “screen time” of these supporting characters might prove to be more challenging than narrating the actual story itself – not to mention deciding the precise points of their entry into the story as well as their actions and thoughts. Having a cast of strong and prominent supporting characters may well tip the scale when the story stagnates at a certain point or when writers hit a writer’s block midway through the story.
  • Villains: Yes, we are talking about the baddies that almost always exist in the story. They are important primarily because of two reasons: the badness in them brings out the good in the lead characters, thereby creating a stark contrast of the typical battle between good and evil. Readers love reading about this conflict because it is prevalent in real life and all if not most of us are able to relate to it to some degree. Readers also relish the delight of good defeating evil as it symbolises the eternally-held belief of good triumphing over evil. Secondly, the defeat of the villain often acts as the end point of the story. And hence, the state of the villain indicates how the story is progressing. When they are defeated, the readers understand that the story is coming to an end. Hence, writers often use villains to control the pace of the story.  Once again, like the lead characters (who cannot be totally good), villains cannot be totally evil. This is because there is good in everyone and portraying someone as totally bad is not realistic. A good example would be the animation film “Megamind”, where the line drawn between good and evil  was blurred. The villain in the film ,Megamind, was bad due to circumstances in his childhood and not by choice. On the other hand, Metro Man, the good guy that everyone was cheering for, had a fatal flaw – a lack of perseverance and a proclivity for an early retirement. It’s characters like this that make a book or a film shine. When creating a villain, give him some heart, show readers the reason(s) for his badness, draw out some redeeming qualities out of him and let readers see his  tender side. Writers who are able to do this will surely have a strong group of supporting readers cheering them on.

While I have placed the “WHO” of story-writing as the last post, it does not imply that it is the least important. I have not ordered the various concepts in any way in this series of posts, so please feel free to explore whichever ways you find comfortable. Sometimes, creating a memorable character may be a great choice while at other times, emphasising the settings of the story may be a better option.

In my next post, I will write a short story to integrate all the concepts learnt.



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