Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Elements of Modern Storytelling: Character Development, A Guest Blog by Barb Caffrey

By Stephanie Osborn

I'm pleased to welcome back Barb Caffrey, book reviewer, editor extraordinaire, and newly-published author of the delightful fantasy/romance/comedy/mystery genre-crosser, An Elfy On The Loose. Today she talks about character development, and she does so from a broad range of experience in literature.



Without characters, you don't have a story.

I mean, think about it: Who'd remember the Harry Potter series if Harry Potter wasn't there? Or his buddy Ron Weasley? Or his other buddy, Hermione Granger? And that's just the good characters.

What about the enigmatic Severus Snape, the villainous Voldemort, or Harry's own uncle and aunt? Without them factoring into the equation, how would the seven books about Harry Potter interest anyone?

No, books are built on characters. It can't be any other way.

Even in a story where it's all about one man's struggle against the elements – such as Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea or the movie 127 Hours, the true story of hiker Aron Ralston (who had to amputate his own arm in order to survive) – you still must buy into the main character's dilemma. You have to care about Hemingway's old man. You have to care about Aron Ralston (as played by actor James Franco). Or the story doesn't make any sense.

And it's always been this way.

Consider, please, that Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales were all about characters. The ones we remember best, such as the stories about the gregarious and lascivious Wife of Bath, are because the characterization was so strong, people just couldn't help getting sucked into the tale.

The biggest and most obvious example, though, is the Bible. There are so many memorable stories there – stories of Moses, of David and Goliath, of Samson and Delilah, of wise King Solomon, and of course last but certainly far from least, Jesus of Nazareth. Most of these stories have narratives we completely understand.

For example, Moses tells the Egyptian Pharoah that if the Pharoah doesn't let Moses's people go, Egypt will be afflicted. The Pharoah doesn't listen, Egypt gets ravaged, and finally after a great deal of suffering, the Pharoah tells Moses to take his people and go.

Mind, if this particular story wasn't in the Bible, we'd see it as a story of action, adventure, mayhem, perhaps even as fantastic...but it works predominantly because we believe Moses is a grounded, down-to-Earth person who's telling the flat truth at all times. We also believe the Pharoah doesn't understand who – or Who – he's messing with, so when the Pharoah (and by extension, all of Egypt) gets his comeuppance, the reader can clap and cheer. (Or at least want to do so, which is one reason why the Bible is among the best-selling books of all time.)

But there's a different Biblical story I'd like to discuss, and that's the story of Job. He's a guy who seemingly has it all at the beginning of his story, and is described as being both "blameless" and "upright." He has a good family, lots of money, lots of property, is well-respected, and has many friends. But because his life is so comparatively easy, Satan turns to God and says, in essence, "Hey, Job has it really easy. I bet he'd not be so good if he had nothing at all."

God's reply is to cause Job to be afflicted with a great deal of unnecessary suffering. Job has no idea why he loses everything, why his family suffers right along with him and most of them die – all he knows is that God has apparently forsaken him, when Job himself hasn't done anything at all to deserve this. And all but a few friends desert him, too – and the few friends left all believe Job must've done something to cause this, even if they don't know what.

Job, though, really is as good as God said he is. So Job keeps being himself, tries to help others, and while he's obviously and understandably upset at all the undeserved misery that's befallen him and his family, he doesn't lash out at other people.

Because of Job's exemplary behavior, eventually much is restored to Job, though Job never gets a true answer as to why this happened. Instead, God basically stays above the fray and says Job cannot judge God – and Job accepts this.

Now, why does much of this story work, even to modern readers who don't accept that a Deity figure would ever behave in such a peremptory way? Well, it's simple: We all know people who've suffered unnecessarily cruel things. We don't know why this has happened. Often, the ones suffering get hectored by their friends, the same as Job was, and that just adds insult to injury. And finally, we respect a man who has shown he truly is good, deep down, in all the ways that count – because anyone can be a good person when there's no adversity in his life.

But it takes a very strong person indeed to be good when everything's stacked against him.

In Job's story, we have two main characters – God, who we can't possibly understand, and who even says so. And Job, who we definitely do understand . . . so if we didn't buy into Job's character, why would the story of Job still be resonating millennia after it was originally written down?

Job's story in particular illustrates why characterization is so important. Because if you don't have someone memorable to build a story around (like Job, Moses, Harry Potter, the Wife of Bath, or my own Bruno the Elfy), what good is the story? Who will remember it? And why should anyone care?

So when you sit down to write, make sure your main character – whether he's human, Elfy, completely alien, Godlike, or many other disparate things – is memorable. Because without that, you can't possibly interest a reader.


Well, it seems appropriate at this point to simply say, "Amen"...

If you haven't read Barb's new book, An Elfy On The Loose, by all means, do so!

-Stephanie Osborn