Very Young Writers: What Characters Do

Hello again, VYWs (and all other writers)!

This is totally unrelated, but  do you remember Ship’s Log by Brandis, that little Alen’s War fanfic I wrote (except it’s canon because I wrote it and I’m the author)? Well, school is done, and I finally wrote part two on Figment. Go check it out.

Now, let’s talk for a minute about characters. You probably know by now that I like ranting about what makes a good or bad character, but writers rarely talk about the basics. However, the question is worth asking: what jobs should characters do in a story?

That depends on many things. Characterization has a lot of sub-categories and requirements, and not every character adheres to every one of those requirements (after all, sometimes we break the rules).  There is so much more to writing characters than I can put down here… but it can be simplified. You can find a few components in almost every single character ever written, and those components just depend on what role the character plays in the story. For now, let’s look at the two most basic roles: the protagonist and the antagonist.

The Protagonist (usually, the good guy)

The protagonist is the main character (who is probably also the hero and your viewpoint character). A protagonist should do three things:

  1. Be likeable
  2. Work to reach a goal
  3. Have a “eureka!” moment where they discover the truth

Now for some explanation. Being likeable just means that readers have to like the character; otherwise, they won’t stick around to see what happens to him. A good example is Gru from Despicable Me (who isn’t actually a good guy!). He may be a cruel, mastermind-y sort, but he’s likeable because he wants to prove himself to his mom and, later, to his little girls. That’s something with which we can all identify.

Having a goal means that the protagonist doesn’t sit around and do nothing, but stands up and tries to get the thing that she wants. For example, Heidi (of Heidi fame, obviously) has one goal: to make people’s lives better, and she works toward it no matter where she is. She makes friends of the goatherd Peter, encourages Clara to learn to walk, and brings her grandfather back to God. As a reward for working toward her goal, Heidi ends up with a group of lifelong friends.

The “eureka” moment is a scene that happens somewhere between the middle and the ending of the story, when the protagonist has to realize the truth she has been missing all this time. Rapunzel from Tangled is a good example. She thinks her dream was to discover what the real world is like, but at last she realizes that she was really searching for her true family all along. And she finds it, with the king and queen and with Flynn/Eugene.

Antagonist (usually, the bad guy)

An antagonist, usually a villain, has a few different requirements:

  1. Be understandable
  2. Cause trouble for the protagonist
  3. Be a different version of the protagonist

Being understandable means that while we don’t necessarily have to like the bad guy (although likeable bad guys are fun too), we should understand why he does what he does. For example, nobody actually likes the Elvenking from The Hobbit book. He’s generally nasty and not very helpful to Thorin and Company. But we do understand why the Elvenking wants Thorin’s gold: he thinks that the dwarves of the Mountain had stolen some gems from him, and he wants them back.

Causing trouble means that the antagonist’s goal is totally opposed to the protagonist’s. For example, in the movie Brave, Queen Elinor (who is an antagonist, but not really a bad guy) wants Merida to marry into one of the clans to preserve peace. That’s opposite to what Merida wants, namely, to stay single and let her hair flow in the wind as she rides through the glen firing arrows into the sunset. (Did you see what I did there??) Neither of those goals is absolutely wrong or absolutely right, but they are completely opposite to each other. This is what causes the conflict.

Being a different version of the protagonist means that the antagonist should be like the hero in some way, only gone wrong. This is a little harder to do, but it adds depth to a story. Star Wars is a spectacular example. Luke and Anakin both have the chance to be the Chosen One, the one who would restore balance to the Force. They both save the galaxy multiple times, they both train as Jedi with Obi-Wan/Ben Kenobi… they even use the same lightsaber. But Anakin chooses the Dark Side and becomes Darth Vader, while Luke chooses to do the right thing. Same character type, different decisions- like two sides of a coin.

So that sums it up.

There are many more ways to characterize the protagonist and antagonist (like backstory ghosts, character moments, and quirks) and many more kinds of characters (like antiheroes, impact characters, and love interests), and obviously I can’t list them all here. But the protagonist and antagonist are a good start. Characterization is complex, but it doesn’t have to be. Ultimately, your characters should seem real enough for the reader to go on the journey with them, and if these lists of three components help you do that, awesome.

Now get back to writing!

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She-Elves, Princesses, and Assassins: Let’s Bust Some Archetypes

Confession time.

We writers, especially young writers like myself, pride ourselves on breaking stereotypes and making the world of literature a better place. We purge our stories of anything that even hints of cliche and strive to write earth-shattering plot twists. We find the cleverest ways to work in a “soapbox theme” without coming across as preachy. Occasionally, we have even gone “indie” and published on our own. We don’t need no stinking Big Four or stock characters to make it.

But it’s time to admit the truth. In the midst of our fight against author- and story-stereotypes, we have allowed Hollywood to take over in other areas. We have allowed them to decide on what exactly is a Strong Female Character.

So, today, we’re going to sit down and do what we writers do best. We are going to rethink the standard that Hollywood has given us, and maybe we will even break a few archetypes. I’ve chosen three which pop up everywhere in movies and books these days- and a bonus, they haven’t already been analyzed on at least fifty different blogs. The bad news is that I won’t get to pick apart Katniss or Bella. The good news? You don’t have to read yet another post about Katniss or Bella.

Hear me now: All this is not to say that the characters I will talk about are bad characters. Some of them did a good enough job in their respective stories. But, by definition, these ladies are not strong. We hold male characters to certain standards of “strongness,” and we should do the same for female characters, right? Of course right. So here we go.

The Soapbox Suffragette: Tauriel of the Hobbit trilogy is the captain of the entire elven guard, a favorite of the king, and everyone’s love interest. She can do no wrong. Moreover, she suddenly finds it feasible to rush off after her boyfriend Kili a pack of orcs, dragging Legolas and the rest of the kingdom to war like a redheaded Joan d’Arc. All this is in direct defiance of royal orders- but that’s perfectly okay, right? She is an empowered heroine who is doing the right thing!

Now, the first problem we notice is that Legolas, for instance, could have done every one of these things (save falling in love with Kili), but instead he had to take on the role of Thranduil’s indoctrinated minion. He was villainized by her very presence in the movie. And one does not simply villainize Legolas.

So if Legolas could easily have filled her role, why bring Tauriel into the story in the first place? According to TheOneRing.net, writer Philippa Boyens “created her… to bring that energy into the film, that feminine energy.” Feminine energy? Tauriel is in the movie as a beacon of girl power- but in a fantasy tale about the dangers of greed and pride? That has nothing to do with the story! Tauriel is ineffective because she distracts Kili, Legolas, and the whole audience from the real story. Now I think we have a name for that sort of character… oh, right. The damsel in distress. Not only is Tauriel irrelevant, but she is a self-defeating character.

The Immature Ideal: Rapunzel from Tangled is gullible, naive, positively grubby, ditzy, and a bit- well, um- vague. And she has a million different hobbies, but she feels that every one of them is pointless; when will her real life begin? Everybody loves character like that. Don’t they?

What Disney may or may not have realized is that Rapunzel- and every other young protagonist they write- becomes a role model for millions of kids worldwide. Little girls and big ones dress up like Aurora, sing “Let It Go,” and pretend that they have magic hair that glows when they sing. This is not necessarily a bad effect; for at least fifty years, Disney produced mature models like Snow White and Cinderella. But then came the age of Ariel, Jasmine, and Rapunzel.

As cutesy and relatable as Rapunzel is, everything that Mother Gothel says is true of her: she is immature and naive, all too ready to disobey her mother’s commands in favor of getting what she wants. Watching this movie and others, little girls are bombarded with the message that they must follow their heart’s desires. That’s right, the heart that tells them to disobey authority and run away from home with a man of poor reputation. Just like Lydia Bennet. Is that the sort of role model parents want for their children?

I think not.

The Ambiguous Assassin: Natasha Romanoff, AKA Black Widow, is the kick-butt fighter from pretty much every Marvel movie ever made. She has the mental capacity of Alan Turing, the weaponry of the ancient Chinese, and the strength of Arnold Schwarzenegger. There is no beating her. End of story. When I look at any character like Natasha, I try to figure out her place in the metanarrative, if you will. Yet this is well-nigh impossible to do.

Natasha isn’t a role model/Mentor. None of her stunts, however awesome they look with CGI, makes her a role model, even in the grayish context of the Marvel universe. If anything, she takes on the role of student rather than teacher. Yet she isn’t the Young Protagonist, either, for she undergoes little, if any, character transformation. She is not a suffragette like Tauriel. She is not here to preach girl power or fight chauvinism; she is here to fight Bad Guys.

As a primary or even secondary character, Natasha is ambiguous. She has no inalienable role in the movie- unless that is to look good, knock down bad guys, and balance out an otherwise all-male cast. But, of course, they could have gotten Thor to do all three of those things. (I’m sorry, I’m sorry…) So where does Natasha fit? Well, we have a seat for characters like her, and it isn’t on the stage of Strong Female Characters. It’s on the bleachers with the tertiary characters and the Foils.

Remember- I’m not saying that Tauriel, Rapunzel, and Natasha have no use in a story. I’m saying that they are mislabelled as strong characters and thus are given too much credit for the job that they do. Put them in different roles and they are just fine. Otherwise, I’d call these archetypes busted.

What do you think? Should we bust these archetypes, or did I overlook something important?