Construction of the characters

Construction of the characters

A fundamental point. Each character in a novel -especially the main character- is the soul of the story. We are talking about the one who will be the guide that takes the reader through the scenarios of the text; the one who puts into practice the main actions contained in the plot. He/she will also be the one who connects with the reader.

How is the reader/character connection achieved? The key word is empathy. In other words, the writer has to get the reader to put himself in the character’s shoes, to live his adventures with him. This is how the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson gets the reader to accompany the pirate Jim Hawkins in his search for treasure.

Where he goes

Undoubtedly the essential element: where the character goes. This point refers to both his objective and his desire (to find the real murderer of his father in order to reconcile with his family who believe him guilty of that death). Objective and desire are key to the story. The writer must choose whether to delve into one, the other or both.

Protagonist and antagonist

Something very important, when writing a novel, is that the author manages to draw a good protagonist and antagonist (depending on the text, the latter may be even more important than the former).

To understand the importance and weight of protagonist and antagonist in the whole of a novel, we can take as an example Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert, the main characters of Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables. A duel between characters, especially if they are as complex as those mentioned, is capable of sustaining, by itself, a novel. 

It is likely that the success of both characters is to be found in the fact that neither one is 100% good nor the other 100% bad. An absolute bad guy would not have thought twice and would have stopped Valjean after saying goodbye to Cosette. 

Flat and rounded characters

We owe to the British writer Edward Morgan Forster, author of A Room with a View, the division between flat characters and round characters. 

According to the qualification established by Forster, when we talk about flat characters we are referring to absolutely predictable characters, who are not going to show neither contradictions nor changes throughout their appearances in the story. Normally these characters revolve around a single character trait, such as the cynical cop that usually appears in all crime novels.

On the contrary, rounded characters evolve, fall into mistakes, contradictions and doubts. This is the case of Javert in Victor Hugo’s novel.

Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back

When discussing which of the first two films of the saga directed by George Lucas is better, the second is usually put ahead of the first. When looking for a reason for this, critics often point out that in The Empire Strikes Back all the characters do what they have to do, while, in Star Wars, there are doubts and tensions. 

The secret to achieve a good rounded character is, precisely, to provide a dark side that is revealed throughout the narrative. This will involve him -the character- going through trials from which he will not emerge victorious at all, having to give up things that are important to him. He will also have to make difficult decisions.

A fantastic rounded character, such as Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island, will have to choose between following the man with whom he has established a paternal-filial bond, John Silver, and the fulfillment of his duty.

The evolution of the character

When we mention the concept of change, we are referring to the need for the character to evolve as the story unfolds. A character who lives the same story over and over again will eventually bore the reader.

A successful character, who engages the reader, will always be someone with many looks, profiles, nuances. A character is what he does, what he decides, what he thinks, what he says, how he says it, the peculiarities of his personality, the physical details and also what other characters think of him.

For the necessary reader/character connection to be established, the former has to be able to see the latter, to connect with his story. In this sense, the description of the protagonist’s physique will generally be less important than the revelation of details of his personality. And this personality can be defined by objects associated with the character. Who does not remember Indiana Jones when he is mentioned, his hat, a whip and a scar on his chin? Or Harry Potter through round glasses, his wand and his scar in the shape of a lightning bolt?

The importance of a name and a personality

The writer George Simenon used the telephone book to assign names to his characters. That’s one way of doing it. The name assigns character to the character, as does the story with which he is endowed, his personality. What are his parents’ names, does he like soccer, what team does he belong to, does he drink wine or beer at meals? The answers to these questions, even if they are not used in the story, will make the story more powerful.