Characters are, in my opinion, the most important part of a story. Now I know there’s a lot of arguments between the idea of importance in a story. Can you have a good story without a setting? And as for plot, the best character in the world doing nothing is utterly dull. So don’t get me wrong; a good story definitely needs all three elements of character, seeing and plot. But I think the character is what lets a person connect to the story on an emotional level.
In a slight departure from my previous writing, I’m going to branch outside of the realms of fiction for my first example, and into history. When writing about history, there’s a couple of different styles and general ways to approach subject matter. The first is what you may be used to reading from history classes at school. While there’s a technical term for this, I’m just going to call it analytical history. In general, this type of history text makes a thesis statement, and then uses examples from history to provide context and support to that statement. This type of work is very good for gleaning concrete lessons learned from historical examples. However, it has its limitations.
First, this style of writing requires significant academic rigor. It also requires a high level of expertise in the craft of research, as well as the author’s ability to write clearly and succinctly. While my knowledge and experience is not exhaustive, I found relatively few works in this style that check the box of accessibility, or how easy it is to understand the author’s meaning.
Secondly, it is very difficult for this type of work to build a cohesive picture in the mind of the reader, without that reader already having at least a passing familiarity with the historical events that the author is using. For example, if the author has six or seven case studies that all support their initial thesis, they will not be able to spend the time and page space to explain all of the historical context that might be relevant for each case study. Some try, but the volume of information quickly spirals into the realm of ludicrous.
Lastly I think it’s difficult to get an emotional connection to this style of writing. And some may argue that this isn’t really the point of this style of historical text; and you may be right. If the purpose of the writing is to provide a knowledge repository that one can go and raid at whim, then it’s very effective. But I would argue that the point of the knowledge is to inform and change the behavior of those that have it. In this context, an emotional connection as a way of both cementing recall, as well as shaping future behavior, is critical.
So how do you get both historical fact, academic rigor, as well as a deep emotional connection?
Narrative history combines all the best aspects of storytelling with sanitary facts. The setting is inherent, the characters already exist, and the plot is laid out without too much creative effort from the author. So the author’s job in narrative history is to bring the people on the page alive to the reader. By connecting people emotionally with historical figures, in context, a great storyteller can both impart the knowledge of history as well as imprint it onto the psyche and decision-making apparatus of a reader. So even when the plot and setting are somewhat sanitary, the importance of character brings history to life.
People are social animals. There are introverts and extroverts, those who prefer to spend the afternoon curled up on the couch with a book, and those who would rather have 15 friends for coffee. But we all live in a society. Humans have been forming societies since we have record of humans. And so, emotional connection to a character is going to tap into eons of evolutionary development and need.
To illustrate the importance of character in storytelling, we need look no further then the greatest stories we have. Whether it is Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Macbeth, or more modern examples like Star Wars or the entirety of the marvel cinematic universe, people’s connection to the characters carries the day. With Shakespeare it’s a little more obvious, given that his great plays are often named after the characters that give them such sway. But if you look at the plot have any of the avengers movies, would they have resonated so hard in the gestalt of society, had the cast of characters been anything less the deeply compelling? Even the very idea of a superhero connects to the need we all have to feel special and different.
And that connection is amplified the closer we bring those characters in line with real, flesh-and-blood humans. Just look at the success of anti-hero stories like Venom, or even the Netflix series The Boys. The idea of superheroes that are just as flawed and given to mistakes as the rest of us brings us that much closer to the characters in the story.
That being said, if you can shoot lasers out of your eyes, please don’t be evil.
So when looking at the examples, whether it be historical texts, plays, or modern immersive experiences like comic books and episodic video games, we can see that the story only truly comes alive when inhabited by deeply personal and relatable characters. So whether you tell stories to entertain, to motivate, or to lead, remember to pay close attention to the characters in those stories. Give them their due diligence; find out what they desire, what motivates them, what their passions and beliefs and fears are, and let all that out into the story. Because that character is the glue it holds your story together. As always I’d love to hear what you have to say in the comments, and go tell amazing stories!